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Be a Better Writer, 2nd edition by Steve Peha, with Margot Carmichael Lester. 2016. Carrboro, NC: Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: Steve himself says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10 to 16,” but honestly, you can adapt ideas in this book for just about any grade level. It would make a terrific gift for kids heading to college—and I also recommend it as a resource for adult professional writers as well as for teachers or writing coaches.

Features: Easy to use lists, charts, and techniques for handy reference; writing samples to show what works and what doesn’t—and how revision unfolds; interviews with well-known writers who offer their wisdom and suggestions; numerous activities to use on your own or in the classroom from Day 1.


I had a hunch I would like this book as soon as I saw the cover—and no, I don’t pay any attention to that old adage. Truth is, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. From this one with its bright colors, whimsical art, and encouraging little notes, I could tell I would be in the hands of someone who (1) probably has a sense of humor about his own writing, and (2) genuinely cares about helping writers of all ages, especially those who find writing difficult at times (and that’s most of us). Some professional resource book authors are so eager to dazzle us with their own genius that they forget how intimidating, how overwhelming writing can seem to readers. Authors with attitude always make me want to say, “Hey, pssst!! Remember us? Your audience?” After all, the underlying purpose of a resource like this should be to answer questions real writers, especially students, ask most: What should I write about? Where can I get ideas? How do I begin? How do I end? What’s a detail? How do I organize all this information I dug up in my research? Who the heck will read this and what do they care about? How do I make my writing sound more like me?

 This book answers every one of these questions, and countless others—and does so in a way that makes the information entertaining as well as easy to understand and recall. It’s not a lecture; it’s a conversation. What’s more, Steve Peha and his co-author Margot Carmichael Lester (who also happens to be Steve’s wife) have gone out of their way to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—tips on sequencing, ideas for good leads, sample endings, thoughts on transitions, guidelines for solid sentences, and more. The secret lies in the layout, which is masterful. Subheads in big—really big—print, charts, lists, and other eye catching features make it easy to take in and process volumes of information. Ever go into a store that seemed to have everything you wanted, all arranged right where you could find it? That’s how it feels to read Be a Better Writer.

The book is written right to students (or any readers looking for guidance on writing well) in a voice that’s friendly, often humorous, and always knowing. You can tell immediately that these are seasoned writers, that everything you struggle with they’ve struggled with, too. Steve is refreshingly honest about his own learning curve: “I know that for some of us, writing is hard. That’s how it was for me in school. I was good at math. I could read. But writing was a mystery, one I didn’t solve until I started helping other people solve it for themselves” (p. 4). Someone who’s fought his own writing demons gives good advice because he knows exactly what advice we’re most likely to need, from topic choice right down to dealing with those pesky commas. Steve and Margot know their stuff, and know how to make a book on writing fun to read. thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-with-background.jpg

I sat down with this book intending to read a sample chapter or two, and was immediately delighted to have the author tell me two things I never expected to hear: (1) You don’t have to read this whole book, and (2) You don’t have to read it in order. I don’t? Gee . . . It’s always a relief to get permission for something you were probably going to do anyway—like skim. While savoring this newfound freedom, I actually did read the whole book—all of it, in order, and in one sitting. Yes, it was that good. Yes, it was that engaging. And yes, you are going to love it, too.


Everything That Matters

Too many resource books try to cover everything. I have a few of those. They’re too big to lift, but ideal for door stops. This book thankfully takes a more discretionary approach. It concentrates, very effectively, on “what matters most.”

In the opening chapter, Steve gives us a stunning “world of writing” overview. He writes about logic, good beginnings, effective description, using easy techniques to get yourself moving when you’re stuck, applying the ingenious “what-why-how” strategy when writing an essay test, getting and using good feedback, and ways to know when you’re finished writing: in short, the “most important” issues writers encounter in their everyday lives. This big picture chapter provides the foundation for the enormously rich discussions that follow, but equally important, it offers a beginning writer assurance: Yes, you can do this. Even if you learn and use just three or four strategies from this book, Steve tells us, you’ll be a better writer. Three or four? you say to yourself—Heck, I can do that! Yes, you can, and now you’ve grasped the underlying theme of the book: making writing do-able, one strategy at a time.


The Top 10. That first chapter and all others open with what is hands down my favorite feature: “10 Things You Need to Know Even If You Don’t Read This Chapter.” I’m certain—I’d bet on it—that you can name six writers right off the top of your head that you wish had used that approach. The “10 Things You Need to Know” opener works on so many levels. First, it gives me a quick preview of the upcoming chapter—which makes my reading infinitely more efficient. Second, it allows me to focus on the sub-topics I need most. And finally, it gives me a simple way to review later so I can recall key points or look something up.

Targeting good writing. Six of the other eight chapters cover topics that define the heart of good writing: “Better Topics,” “Better Ideas,” “Better Organization,” “Better Voice,” “Better Words,” and “Better Sentences.” The book doesn’t cover everything you ever wanted to know about conventions plus a few things you didn’t (just one more thing to love about it), but does offer excellent chapter on “Better Punctuation” that also includes an editorial nod to paragraphing and capitalization. Steve, with his characteristic sense of humor, has a good time showing how punctuation can alter meaning in even a short sentence like Herman Melville’s classic opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” (Think about it until you get your own copy; try punctuating it as many ways as you can.)

I cannot say whether this was intentional (and it doesn’t matter), but Be a Better Writer is extremely “trait friendly.” If you teach the six traits to your students, you will find this book filled with activities you can use for that purpose. But wait, there’s more . . .

The book also devotes a whole chapter to “Better Fiction,” so just in case you’re reading it not so much to teach writing as to get your own work published, here’s a chapter you’ll savor—and if you’re like me, it will have you rolling up your sleeves and revising in your head even before you finish reading it.

Organization Plus

The book is beautifully organized, and next to the confident, upbeat voice, this is the characteristic I appreciated most. The pacing is quick and lively, and chapters include recurring features that I quickly learned to look for, like these five:

Feature 1: Terrific checklists. Every chapter features an enormously useful checklist related to the subject at hand. For example, Chapter Two offers us “Your Checklist for Better Topics.” Like most writers, I am constantly in search of a good topic, so I devoured this list. Steve is particularly good at coming up with questions students can ask themselves and he embeds these into the checklist: “What ideas and details will encourage readers to follow my piece all the way to the end? What will make them feel like it was worth the time and effort they get to spend there?” (p. 35) Questions like these remind me that writing well requires us not only to think like readers but to offer our audience something in return for the gift of their time and commitment.

Feature 2: Samples—and lessons in modeling. Each chapter includes one or more writing examples, some written by Steve and many written by students. In this chapter, Steve uses a piece of his own writing, titled “My Father’s Gift,” to illustrate the difficulties inherent in “Tackling Tough Topics,” things that are just plain hard to write about because our emotions get in the way. He helps us understand how pushing ourselves into topics that make us uncomfortable forces us to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. Here’s a quick summary of Steve’s story:

Steve’s father, a man without a lot of money to spend, has given 10-year-old Steve a gift in a manila envelope, and waits eagerly for his son to open it. They are not close, and there’s a palpable tension between them. Days go by, and Steve still has not opened the gift, so has to lie when his father questions him about it. When he finally does look inside, he discovers that the envelope contains valuable photographs of his favorite team, the Washington Huskies. Even though he likes and appreciates the photos, he doesn’t safeguard them, nor does he fully acknowledge the value of the gift. Years later, needing to raise money in a hurry, he remembers the photos and decides to sell them—only to discover he has inadvertently sent them off with the trash while cleaning out his room. Realizing what he has done, and imagining how his father would react if he knew, sets off a chain of conflicting emotions that make this story of giving and receiving hard to resolve—but Steve writes a strong ending about “where giving and forgiving meet, and grace abides” (p. 52).

When I show teachers how to model writing, I encourage them to do something that doesn’t come easily to most: to think out loud, sharing the way writing unfolds in the writer’s mind. Students need to know why we begin or end a certain way, why we add a phrase or delete a word. Most teachers understand this instinctively, but somehow the act of actually sharing their thinking aloud with students feels awkward, and makes many self-conscious. That’s why I wanted to cheer when I finished the story and then read Steve’s description of his own writing process. It’s precisely the kind of sharing that helps kids understand how writing works: “I had an easy time with the beginning,” he reveals, “but it took many tries to write the ending” (p 35). He explains that he had to realize his story was about forgiveness before he could get the ending right. “When I was thinking only about the fact that my piece needed an ending, I wrote many endings, but never one that captured what I wanted to say because I hadn’t thought at all about what that was.”

There are two lessons here: One, an ending needs a message. And two, students learn so much by getting inside a working writer’s head. This book takes them there—to where the writing happens. I cannot think of another writing resource book that does this so well.

Feature 3: The Unexpected. Everyone loves surprises, and Be a Better Writer delivers. Though it has recurring features, it’s never formulaic. Chapter Two, for instance, includes a section that made me sit up and take notice: “Topic Choice When You Have No Choice.” Think “on-demand writing.”

Back in the day, when my writing assessment team and I were reading literally thousands of stories and essays for county, district, and state writing assessments, all of us wondered how it could be that though students were often writing to the very same prompt, some managed to make their writing irresistibly engaging, read-out-loud funny, or heart stoppingly moving, while others were clearly so bored it was a wonder they could push their pencils across the paper. The secret lies in learning to personalize a topic. How does a writer do that?

Try Steve’s “Topic Equation Strategy,” in which Interest + Subject = Topic. Without giving away too much of Steve’s thunder, let me say that this equation simply calls for coupling your assigned subject—say it’s climate change—with something that interests you, like whales, perhaps. Instead of writing in a broad brushstroke kind of way about climate change, you might ask, How is climate change affecting whales, and will they survive it? Will warming ocean waters disturb their migration cycle, and what will they eat if all the krill die? Now you have a topic that will keep both you and your readers awake. Solving a problem (e.g., the dreaded assigned topic) that has plagued students and teachers for generations is a stroke of genius, and for me, this solution alone makes the book worth its purchase price.

Feature 4: Interviews. Among the book’s most intriguing features are interviews with various writers of note who talk about how they became writers and offer advice to beginners in the craft. The authors chose their interviewees well; each has something memorable to say. Among my favorite moments are these lines from Luis J. Rodriguez, known for his books of memoir, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Asked why he writes, Rodriguez says, “To heal. To dance. To wake up something beastly as well as something beautiful. I write to stay alive.”

Feature 5: Activities, activities. All chapters wrap up with a list of activities you can try (as a student, or as a teacher/coach working with students), and they range from easy to challenging, quick to extended. Sometimes Steve invites us to journal a character or try transforming a telling statement to a showing one, and other times we’re asked to write a letter, experiment with organization, collect beginnings and endings, or write a piece in a whole new voice. What makes these activities so authentic and appealing is that they’re things Steve himself has tried as a writer. And as he reminds us at the beginning of the book, we do not have to do all the activities. We can pick and choose. But this is guaranteed: If we do enough of them, our writing will improve.

Miss Margot’s Role

Co-author Margot Carmichael Lester is a journalist and author. She offers her journalist’s perspective throughout the book, and it’s a great balance because by her own admission, she leans toward nonfiction and opinion writing. Like all good journalists, she knows the value of writing concisely and cutting what isn’t needed. Though she offers us many good pieces of advice throughout the book, I think this one has to be my favorite: “When I have too many details, I re-evaluate them. If a detail doesn’t support the main idea, it’s out. If it doesn’t lead people to think feel, or do what I want them to, it’s gone. If it doesn’t answer a critical question or objection from the reader, it’s toast.” I love a ruthless editor, and ruthlessness is a quality more students need to cultivate as writers. Hack away, Miss Margot (p. 73).

Hidden Gems

You may have noticed that you can always tell which resource books were worth your while because the best ones are eventually filled with highlighted passages and raggedy sticky notes. That’s because readers have highlighted, circled, underlined, and commented on the book’s hidden gems, little bits of wisdom that aren’t paraded before us in any obvious way, but just wait there tucked inside the folds of text, waiting to be discovered. Here are just a handful of the quotable moments I noticed while reading Be a Better Writer. Have a highlighter and pencil handy when you read your own copy because you will find many more moments like these:

  1.  “The key to descriptive writing is making a picture in your mind and using words and phrases that help readers make the same picture in theirs” (p. 11).
  2. “Getting feedback isn’t just finding out why some people like your writing and others don’t. It’s about getting precise information about how to improve your work” (p. 27).
  3. “Life experience is the greatest source of topic ideas you’ll ever have” (p. 33).
  4. “Think of your teachers as editors” (p. 36).
  5. “If you’re like many writers, you’ll come back to the same topics again and again” (p. 57).
  6. “Voice is the most important quality in your work because it influences all of the other qualities” (p. 157).
  7. “Draft like you talk and revise like you read” (p. 189)


Not surprisingly, Be a Better Writer has enjoyed overwhelming popularity since its release. If you’d like a copy of your own or want more information, here are some links that will help:

 To get the book on Amazon:

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

To see Steve’s newsletter:

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

Steve and Margot are offering a huge discount (40%) thru June 30 for schools ordering 25+ copies by PO.


Jeff and I say goodbye for the summer–just for the summer!!

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We have gained many new fans over recent months, and we have you to thank! Like many of you, Jeff and I are going to take a summer break to do some traveling and spend time with our families. We will return in the fall with more reviews and thoughts about teaching writing well. Writing isn’t just our occupation—it’s our passion. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


I know that the end of another school year is just around the corner—I’m sure that none of you are counting the days. You’re all too busy teaching your fingers to the bone, keeping students engaged, focused, and learning, squeezing the most out of the last weeks (or days) of school. Soon, very soon, your mind will be able to shake itself loose from teacher mode. Thoughts of summer, carefree relaxation with an icy beverage or two will take over and you’ll begin the important process of recharging your professional batteries, gulping it in like an all-electric vehicle at a charging station. But we all know that it’s possible, after the initial phase of summer’s mind-scrubbing decompression, because of who you are—a reflective professional—that you might permit a few thoughts of August and September to creep in and get you thinking about next year. To make sure you are ready for that moment, I’m going to recommend an excellent writing contest for your next batch of students and a few book ideas (to read aloud or recommend to students) for your post-murder mystery/romance/spy thriller summer reading. After all, you’re a teacher! You know you can’t block it out for very long. Admit it–it’s who you are. It’s how you roll.


Writing Contest—Letters About Literature: Read. Be inspired. Write Back

Once I discovered this contest years ago, I never missed getting my students involved. It’s sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. You can find all you need to know about how to enter and important deadlines at: Here’s a sample from the website to give you the basics—“Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem, or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.”

The letters students write for this contest are not the typical fan letters students often write to favorite authors where they ask the writer questions—Where did you get the idea for this book? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you think there will ever be a movie bout your book? The purpose of these letters is to talk directly to authors—reader to writer—to let them know how a book impacted the reader’s life—how the book got inside the reader’s head and heart, how it may have changed some aspect of their life. Here are example letters from two of my former students, both eighth graders. (The judging categories are Level I—grades 4-6, Level II—grades 7-8, Level III—grades 9-12.) The first letter is from a student that you might call an avid reader/writer and the second is from a more reluctant reader/writer.


Letter #1 (Winner—Honorable Mention, state level—Oregon)
To author Han Nolan
Book: If I Should Die Before I Wake
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Han Nolan,
Your book “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” made me look at the people around me in a different way. Chana’s strength and perception made me start focusing more on peoples’ actions, ideas, and views rather than what they own, who they know, or what their dreams are.
When Chana and her family are in the concentration camp, their thoughts and actions are magnified, because that’s all they have left. The Jews are put in a place where they are forced to work without food, to obey commands and given no clothing, to sweat, starve and die under the cold, watchful eyes of the Germans. Chana had to have strength of character and the courage of her convictions to survive. The harsh conditions of the damp brought out the best and worst in people — character traits that never would have shown up otherwise. The part of the book that really got inside my head was when Chana found herself in a position to kill one of the German guards who had caused her and everyone else in the camp so much pain.
               “I was not a girl with dreams of someday becoming a great violinist, or of getting married and having children. I was not a girl with a family, or a house, or fancy clothes. I was not someone who belonged to a shul, or was known for her brown wavy hair with a strand that always jutted out in the back. I could no longer identify myself by what I owned, or who I knew, or what my dreams were. This—my body, my mind, my soul—was all I was. It is all any of us ever are, and without the camouflage of my dreams and possessions, I realized that everything I did, every thought i had, was all I was. It was all very simple. If I killed the guard, all of who I was would be a murderer, not a murderer and a violinist who lived in a house and had a nice family—just a murderer. If I showed love, all of me would be a lover. Who then did I want to be?”
                 Separated from their families, stripped of their clothes, and living in tiny, freezing barracks with greasy kitchens, the hearts of the Jews are revealed.
Their thoughts and actions become all they are. It is all we ever are, but we never learn to see that because we live in disguise, masked by our possessions, our dreams, our position in society.
This got me thinking…without my possessions and dreams, who would I be? I would not be a girl who had a nice family and went to school. I would not be a girl who loved books and art, would not be a girl who had a dog called Tillie and lived on a house on a hill that was best for sledding.
After I thought about this, I began to put more emphasis on my actions, thoughts, and views on things. I started question in the people around me. What if we all wore school uniforms? What if we lived in a world where every thing was invisible, and all that showed were your words? Would people choose the same friends?
People have always told me “It’s what on the inside that counts” but the real meaning of that statement never got inside my head until now. When Chana was in the concentration camp, the importance of her thoughts and actions was magnified. I realized that without having to get to that point, I can still look at people through their actions and words, and cherish my own.
Thank you.



Letter #2 (Winner—Second Runner Up, state level—Oregon)

To author Carl Deuker
Book: Painting the Black
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Mr. Deuker,
I feel that you have written the book, Painting the Black just for me. I believe this because at so many different periods in the book, I was able to relate back to a time where I have felt the same excitement, or the same doubt. This year I have read more books total then I have in my whole life. My total this year is six and counting, from kindergarten until now I had read probably four books. Thanks to authors like you I have finally been able to feel the excitement of a good book.
I am a big sports guy, always playing a sport, and if I’m not playing, then I’m watching. The last two years have been a big switch for me; I went from soccer to football. Last year was my first year I played football, starting at tight end. I felt that I was fairly decent; I enjoyed playing this position as well. Going out for a deep pass or crushing my enemy with a huge clock—I loved it. But deep down inside, I was a quarterback. I could bomb the ball in the tightest spiral and make it look like it was not even spinning. I was a QB. There was only one thing that was keeping me from achieving my goal, and that was my best friend Greg. He was like Josh in the story—he was perfect. If he was going to throw deep, it was going deep and right on the mark every time. If I wanted to be QB next year, I was going to have to work, and work hard; work as hard as Ryan did in the story. He wanted to be the starting catcher on the team and he achieved his dream. So why couldn’t I? I worked all summer long throwing the football constantly. I threw through a tire that hung from a play set in back yard. I wanted to be a QB, so that’s what I was going to be. I told myself that every night.
Now it was finally time, football season; it was finally here, and I was ready. At practice, I worked at QB hard, and let me tell you I was doing a good job. I was living the life I always wanted and it was only my second year. After that practice, I proved to my self and to my coach that I should be the starting quarterback for the Beaverton Metro Junior Beavers.
During the year I had feelings, just as Josh did the first game he got to play. I felt on fire, with everything going my way, a masterpiece at work, dodging tackles, and diving for first downs. It was great. I worked just as hard as Ryan did, and I was successful, too. There was a time when one of my fellow teammates did something against team rules. I did not choose to tell, and I did this for the same reason as Ryan. He was hesitant to tell on Josh in the story. We needed this player, and we may have lost without him. The same for Ryan and Josh; Josh had a shocking incident with Monica in the story. Ryan did not want to tell at first for the same reason as I, but Ryan ended up doing the right thing. I didn’t. It turned out to be not that big of a deal, but to this day, I still think about it.
               Painting the Black is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Let me tell you Mr. Deuker, I will never find a book that matched my life in the same way.


*Important Note*

I do hope you take a moment to visit and look at both the contest details and examples of national level winning letters. You will find information about entering (and how the letters will be assessed) and a helpful teaching guide to supplement your own ideas. November is the month when you may begin submitting entries, and each level has it’s own submission deadline.

Since the new school year is several months away (and many miles beyond your current radar), I will post a reminder here on STG and on Twitter (@JeffHicks156) sometime in September/early October.

Some School Related Book Recommendations

The books that follow are three of my favorite recent reads. And I believe they’re the kind of books that, in the hands of student readers, could launch a whole bunch of the type of letters the LAL contest (above) is all about. I could say a lot about each of them, but I won’t. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information or classroom ideas you may be too busy to absorb at this point in the year. I just want to let you know about a few worthwhile books to check out for yourself. But don’t be surprised if I come back to one or more of them in the fall when your teacher engine is fully charged.


Book: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Grades 5 and up

352 pages

Passage—pages 109-110

            The next thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this: They are taking over.

            Did you know that? Not many people do. It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention. People pay attention to other things. They pay attention to videos of cats playing pianos, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend. They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

            But meanwhile. Out there in the sea. Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

            Isn’t that a pretty phrase? Jellyfish blooms, like garden flowers opening up to the sun.

            There are more jellyfish than ever. At least, that’s what some scientists say.



Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Grades 8 and up (If it were a movie—PG-13 rating)

320 pages

Passage—pages 144-145

             I knew exactly what I was drawing. The only thing I could. I was going to re-create the scene, what had happened to me, what was playing constantly on the news, on the page.

            First the outline. A teenage boy. Hands up. No. Erase. Hands down. No. Hands behind his back. Outline of a figure behind him. Bigger than he is. Holding him around the neck. No. Not that. Fist in the air. No. Not that either. Hands pushing through the teenage boy’s chest. A building behind him. A store. Person in the doorway. Cheering.


Book: The War that Save my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Grades 4-7

320 pages

Passage—pages 183

            I knew I couldn’t really stay. The good things here—not being shut up in the one room, for starters, and then Butter, and my crutches, and being warm even when it was cold outside. Clean clothes. Nightly baths. Three meals a day. That cup of Bovril before bedtime. The ocean seen from the top of the hill—all of these things, they were just temporary. Just until Mam came for us. I didn’t dare get too used to them.

            I tried to think of the good things about home. I remembered Mam bringing home fish-‘n’-chips on Friday nights, crisp and hot and wrapped in newspaper. I remembered that sometimes Mam sang, and laughed, and once even danced Jamie around the table. I remembered how when Jamie was little he spent his days inside with me. I remembered the crack on the ceiling that looked like a man in a pointed hat.

            And even if it felt like Mam hated me, she had to love me, didn’t she? She had to love me, because she was my mam, and Susan was just somebody who got stuck taking care of Jamie and me because of the war.



Coming Up on Gurus . . .

We know your school year is in full gear even as it winds down. It won’t be long before we take a short summer break, as well. Before we do, Vicki is going to tell you about Steve Peha’s new book, Be a Better Writer. It’s filled with all sorts of ideas for your classroom—a few to try now and many more for the fall.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.



I have a friend, a retired university English professor, who is my reading role model because of both his reading habits and the books he chooses to read. Every winter, he selects a Dickens novel to read—it’s the perfect season for reading Dickens (and he has read all of them), and while he was teaching, he would “treat” himself at the conclusion of spring term to one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. His recommendations have steered me to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Wilke Collin’s The Moonstone, and Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, to name just a few. My good friend has even inspired me to do something I usually don’t like to do—“binge” read more than one book consecutively by the same author. I haven’t done it quite to his level—e.g. he read the entire John Le Carre novel catalog in order (I think that’s around 23 books). I’m not even sure why I don’t like to do it, but recently broke from my pattern and read four books in a row by YA author Andrew Smith, one after the other before coming up for air: Winger, Stand Off (the sequel to Winger), Grasshopper Jungle, and Stick. And I have three more waiting on the shelf—100 Miles Sideways, the Alex Crow, and Ghost Medicine (Smith’s first novel).

There’s something (actually there’s a lot of somethings) about Andrew Smith’s writing, storytelling, characters, and honesty that just speaks to me, and I figure that if that’s true, then his books will also resonate with a grade 9-12 student audience. I do want to provide a bit of a warning to readers who may be sensitive/nervous about reading or recommending YA novels containing salty language, sexual references, and sexual situations. These books are all coming of age stories focusing on male lead characters, and yes, they contain some strong language and sexual situations. None of this seems gratuitous or included for shock value because Mr. Smith’s characters speak authentic “boy.” The hook for me, as I think it will be for student readers, is that each of Mr. Smith’s books features fully realized characters drawn from real life, facing real problems, and dealing with them using their real teenage brains. Real teen characters are going to use foul language, and they are going to have family issues, friendships, romantic relationships, they’re going to question authority, and make some bad decisions. And because they are teenagers, they’re going to think about sex, talk about sex, and act upon sexual impulses. But they’re also going to surprise the adults in their lives by thinking and doing amazing things for themselves, the people they care about, and even for their world. (Both my teaching and parenting experiences will vouch for that.)

In case I haven’t scared you off, what follows is a brief summary of three of the four Andrew Smith books I read ( I don’t want to overwhelm you or somehow limit the joy you might feel at discovering the rest on your own), some short passages from each to give you a flavor of his writing, and an idea or two about how all or part of the books might be used by grade 9-12 teachers. (Stand-Off is a fully realized, very satisfying sequel to Winger, a continuation of the main character’s coming of age. I thought I would start you off with the first book, and let you go from there.)

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Winger. 2013. Andrew Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

439 pages (Hardback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age novel

Summary: Ryan Dean West is fourteen, excels at school, is kind of scrawny, and the youngest 11th grader at Pine Mountain, a fancy private boarding school in the mountains of Oregon. At Pine Mountain they play rugby, a sport for both behemoths and undersized fast kids like Ryan Dean. He plays winger, hence his less than creative nickname, “Winger.” To begin his junior year, Ryan Dean is placed in Opportunity Hall, a special dormitory for students who have broken one of the many strict rules at Pine Mountain. Ryan Dean was caught stealing/borrowing a teacher’s cell phone and hacking into the account so he could make “undetected, untraceable” calls. (Cell phones are off limits to students.) He’s not a bad kid though he does make several questionable decisions, fueled by self-doubt. He’s often aware they’re bad decisions, yet makes them anyway—“I’m such a loser!” is his frequent, sad mantra.

The story, told by Ryan Dean, is enhanced by the inclusion of his cartoons, where he lampoons teachers, friends, enemies, and himself, along with humorous charts/graphs of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Ryan Dean believes in telling the truth, and let’s readers know that though he swears frequently in his narration, he almost never does it in front of people. He’s got an awful roommate, a rogue’s gallery of teammates, and to top it off, he’s in love with Annie, his best friend, and yearns for her to see him as more than a little kid. To tell much more would be verging on spoiling some wonderful character and story developments. As always, I suggest you read the book yourself before recommending it or using it with students.

Three Short Passages from Winger—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I’ll be honest. If someone asked me am I in love with Annie Altman, I’d have to say I don’t know, because I really don’t know. I have nothing to compare with how I feel about her. But I do know that I feel this kind of a need where she is concerned; I need her to notice me more than she does; I need to think that I make her feel lighter when she sees me. And there’s no way I could ever believe that was possible, because it was just little me, Ryan Dean West, fourteen years old, walking around in the exact same clothes and tie as four hundred other guys at Pine Mountain, every one of us so much the same, except for me, except for that one thing she noticed that she couldn’t get over, that made me so unattractively different from every other eleventh-grade boy in this shithole. (Page 108)
  2. Running through the woods north of their house, it amazed me how green things grew on top of green things that were still green and growing. Trees were covered with ferns and vines and mosses, and everywhere it looked as if nothing had been dry in centuries. And in the dark woods as we ran, I could smell that living-ocean scent of the island, and I heard nothing but the sounds of our feet on the wet ground, our breathing, and the static-spark sizzle of rain dripping through the forest cover. (Page 261)
  3. Okay.

                 Let’s call this an intermission.

                 With a bit of an apology, I guess.

                  You ever hear of Joseph Conrad? He said, “One writes half the book: the other half is up to the reader.”

                 Mr. Wellins might say that I have made you a conscripted audience. That I didn’t give you a choice as to whether or not to believe me, and, believe me, sometimes I can’t believe myself.

            Or something. (Page 410)

In Your Classroom

This (and the sequel, Stand-Off, as well) may not be a book you want to use with your entire class, but it may be just the thing to recommend to a student or select group of students for independent or special project reading. This is where your relationships with your students—knowledge of their interests, reading habits/patterns, etc.—really come into play. I always kept a stand of books on my desk for students to borrow and for me to recommend. It never seemed to matter what books I had, if they were on my desk, students would ask to see them, like I had a lock on all the “cool” books. I hate to label books as “boy” or “girl” books, but as I said, Andrew Smith speaks fluent boy, especially to boys who have spent some time on the edges of school/social circles. Here are a couple ways to use selected parts of the book.

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any that speak to you from your reading of the book) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used as a model for students to reflect about something/someone they care about, or as a model for self-description. The passage blends long sentences with shorter ones and even violates some “rules”—beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc.)—as a stylistic choice to create interesting sentence fluency.
  2. Using Cartoons/Graphs/Charts to Explain a Key Life Moment—Ryan Dean punctuates moments in his story with the inclusion of a cartoon drawing—like the one of the door to his dorm room on page 13—or a graph/chart to visualize or quantify something he is feeling—page 55’s pie chart of “Ryan Dean West Brain Capacity Allocation,” page 117’s bar graph of “Things Ryan Dean West is Afraid Of.”
  3. The Game of Rugby—Ryan Dean plays rugby and loves it—the physicality, the camaraderie, the traditions, and the fact that it’s a sport where skinny, fast, tenacious guys like him play an important role. (One of my roommates in college played rugby, so I have watched countless games and understand at least the basics of the game. I even traveled in a van with his rugby team from Eugene, Oregon to Carmel, California for a huge rugby tournament. It’s a game that attracts really “interesting” characters of all shapes and sizes.) I would use some of the rugby talk (there are passages about rugby practice, games, and rituals) in this book as a springboard to researching and explaining the culture and rules of rugby (or any sport that interests your students). 


Stick. 2011. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

292 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age (Sexual identity, physical/verbal abuse)


This story is told through the eyes and ear (just one) of thirteen-year-old Stark McClellan. He’s called Stick because that’s the way he’s built—tall for his age and rail thin. He was born with only one ear and has been told by his abusive parents, in many ways, that he is ugly and deformed. Stick and his sixteen-year-old brother Bosten are survivors. Their close relationship keeps them going as each suffers beatings, confinement, and verbal abuse. When their parents find out that Bosten is gay, he leaves home after suffering a terrible beat down at the hands of his father. Stick summons the courage to go after him, to keep their all important connection alive, and finds his way to his Aunt Dahlia’s in California, a safe haven where he figures Bosten will end up.

Three Short Passages from Stick—Just for the Flavor:

  1. When you see me at first, I look like just about another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you’re probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even—green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy’s ear, but it’s pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter’s clay. No hole—a canal, they call it.

            Nothing gets into my head that way.

            I can’t easily hide it because my dad won’t let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there’s nothing                        wrong with            me.

                                                                                                                        But I’m ugly.

            You see what I’m doing, don’t you? I                        am                         making

                                                                                                                        you hear me.

            The way                         I                         hear the                                     world.

            But I won’t do it too much, I                                                promise. (Page 6)


  1. “Let me see. Okay?”

            I pulled the sheet down, away from Bosten’s shoulders, so I could see his back.

            We’d both been beaten plenty of times before. This was one of the bad ones. It happened every so often.

            “It’s pretty bad,” I said.

            From the middle of his shoulder blades, past his butt and onto his thighs, Bosten was streaked with purple welts. Some of the marks that were raised had actually bled; all of them, angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.

            I whispered, lower, “Turn flat. I’m going to put something on it to make you feel better.”

            Bosten rolled flat onto his belly. He rested his chin on his forearm and stared at the wall at the head of the bed.

            “I hate them.” (Page 62)


  1. Sometimes I wondered why she treated us that way, why she accepted us the way she did. It wasn’t a sterile kind of tolerance, like kids could expect from PE coaches and nurses who gave you tetanus shots; it was something else.

            One time she told me about how her husband died when she was only twenty-five years old. I said he must have been a real nice man, but I couldn’t look at her when I said that. It made me sadder that just about anything. It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.

            She was a wondrous person, I thought. (Page 132)

In Your Classroom

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any other that catch your eye and ear as you read) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used with students as a model for self-description—“When you see me at first…” The writing could be done as poetry, where student writers consider how they see themselves compared to how others see them. The passage explains how Stick, because of his missing ear, hears/processes when people speak to him. He wants us to experience the slower, delayed pace of incoming speech. Your student writers could experiment in their own poetry with spacing gaps, line breaks, and formatting as a way to control the way their readers encounter their messages.
  2. Figurative Language—Similes—In passage #2, Bosten has been severely beaten by his father, again. Andrew Smith, through Stick, describes this moment between brothers quietly, almost casually. It may be shocking to us, but to them, it’s routine. As a reader, this makes the moment seem even more horrifying. He punctuates it with a pair of vivid, related similes, coming one after the other, “…angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.” Students could experiment with this idea of simile stacking.
  3. Discussion/Opinion Writing— I think that the second to last line in passage #3 would open the door to an interesting class discussion followed up with a reflective piece of writing: “It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.” It’s a variation on the classic Nature v. Nurture conundrum. What forces, experiences, circumstances, choices, lead people to behave the way they do? Is it possible for people to be all good or all bad? Is it possible for people to change?


Grasshopper Jungle. 2014. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

388 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age/sexual identity/science fiction/giant grasshopper apocalypse novel (This is a difficult one to pin down.)

Awards: 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal Longlist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award


I’m not sure if I can actually summarize this book. It may be the coolest, strangest, funniest, creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not quite sure how to explain the wild storyline. Remember all of the things I said earlier about salty language and sexual references/situations? They really apply to this book. Even though the story takes some bizarre turns, the main characters seemed real—real teenagers immersed in a surreal world. Austin Szerba, his best friend Robby, and his girlfriend Shann unwittingly loose upon the world a horde of savage, giant praying mantises interested only in eating and multiplying. This insect apocalypse begins in a small town in Iowa but has links to Austin’s Polish ancestors and a series of strange scientific discoveries, past and present. And, of course, it’s up to these three to save both their world and the world.

Based on what I’ve just said (or any of the book jacket blurbs), you may decide not to read it or even look at it. But I can think of several reluctant reader-teenage boy-students—past and present—who would eat this book up and ask for more. One student in particular comes to mind. He is a fanatic follower of The Walking Dead graphic novel series and television show, and has struggled with all sorts of issues. This student would find a connection, both as a reader and as a young man, with Austin, Robby, and Shann. You might not want to use this with an entire class, but having books like this one in your pocket, so to speak (or on your desk), empowers you to perhaps keep a few students reading.

Two Short Passages from Grasshopper Jungle—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

            We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

            But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

            This is my history.

            There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

            Just like it’s always been. (Page nine—opening lines of the book)


  1. The Unstoppable Soldier looked confused, if such an expression could manifest itself on the face of a six-foot-tall beast that looked like a praying mantic. Hungry Jack’s left arm fell off first. The right arm disjointed and plunked down onto the ground seconds later. The tooth-spiked claw arms rattled around on the pavement of the parking lot, spastically opening and closing, opening and closing, as they scraped along the ground with no coherent mission.

            Where the claw arms had detached from Hungry Jack’s thorax, a gooey stream of slick yellow fluid burbled like twin pots of boiling unstoppable cornmeal mush. Then Hungry Jack’s chin lowered and his head rolled away from his body, landing on the ground between the two flailing arms.

            What was left of Hungry Jack scampered away on four gangly legs, which soon became three, then two, and the entire Unstoppable Soldier collapsed in puddles of oily mush.

            Robby Brees saved my life.

            Being a historian naturally has its dangers, but this is my job. I tell the truth. (Pages 354-355)


  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Because this is the book’s opening, passage #1 could be used as a model for students to begin a written reflection/story from their history—a brief scene from their lives so far or moment where they acted stupidly and didn’t actually learn from it. You could even use the last line of Passage #2 to open their reflection, emphasizing that what follows will be “the truth.” The second passage is a clear example of the power that strong verbs have to give movement/motion to scenes describing action.

More About Andrew SmithVisit for all sorts of information about Mr. Smith and his books.

Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our three picks for this post:

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters by Sean B. Carroll


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 Letters About Literature contest for grade 4-12 students, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, has come and gone. I was only recently reminded of this wonderful writing contest that I used to invite my students to enter. Shortly after the winners (state and national levels) are announced in April, I want to put in a plug for both the contest and the type of writing it inspires. And, of course, Vicki and I have been reading all sorts of wonderful books we’ll want to share with you to inspire you and your student writers.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.



My first suggestion for you is to make sure you’ve read Vicki Spandel’s post from late January, “Rubrics Revisited.” I’ve lifted the title of my post directly from Vicki’s piece, because it resonated so strongly to me. So feel free to take a few moments to check it out!

Vicki’s latest post, “Rubrics Revisited,” has been rolling around inside my head since I first read it, so much so that I’d like to briefly revisit her revisiting. I’ve been doing some substitute teaching this school year, mostly with fifth grade students at the elementary school four blocks from my house but including a few days here and there at middle and high school. Recently, I’ve also been helping the high school son of a good friend–I’ll refer to him as Student K–with some of his writing for his senior Lit and Comp class. Vicki’s spot-on comments about rubrics, or writing guides (as we prefer to call them), rang so many bells with my recent classroom experiences, and especially my work with Student K, that I felt the need to toss out my own thoughts and reflections. I want to focus my comments on one particular statement Vicki makes early in her post (the underlining is mine): “My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?” And, of course, it should be the goal and the foundation of powerful writing instruction in the classroom.

Before I get going, I want to make sure one thing is clear. When I substitute or work with individual students, I don’t judge the teachers I’m filling in for or those who have assigned the writing I’m helping a student work through. Seriously—that’s not my job. Neither Vicki nor I have ever suggested that there’s only one way to teach writing. We’ve focused our efforts on identifying the philosophies, the strategies, and the practices that work (and have worked over time)—across all grade levels—to develop confident, accomplished young writers. However, I do notice things—classroom routines, a room’s physical set up, instructional practices, the way students respond to directions, and the way students react to and approach writing in the classroom. I do encounter amazing teachers and classrooms all the time, and I don’t call them amazing because they do things exactly as I would. But I also find and am frustrated by, truth be told, missed opportunities in many classrooms especially when it comes to using “rubrics” and personal comments to communicate with student writers as part of writing instruction. (I’m pretty sure that sounds judgmental even if that’s not my intention.)

What follows are a few of my takeaways from Vicki’s post filtered through years in my own classroom, my work with teachers as a professional development presenter, my current work as a substitute teacher, and focused on several of these instructional missed opportunities uncovered during my very recent work with a senior in high school, Student K.

Student K’s Story—Instructional “Missed Opportunities”

Student K came to me wanting some help on an end-of-semester writing assignment for his grade 12 Lit and Comp class. His task was to fictionalize an actual crime story—factual reportage—similar to the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He could not exceed a thousand words and would be assessed with a 4-point, 4-part task-specific rubric. (I’ve included a photo later.) This rubric was handed out at the onset of the assignment. The descriptors broke down levels of performance across four learning targets:

1—I can select and apply effective words and syntax.

2—I can use correct conventions (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) in my writing.

3—I can write narrative pieces.

4—I can use the writing process to improve my writing.

Student K based his writing on a pair of robberies at a local convenience store committed by two high school age boys. (The boys robbed the same store, with the same clerk at the register, within a two-week span.) He had an initial outline, notes from research, two rough drafts—one with “comments” from the teacher, and a copy of the rubric. I would describe my work with Student K as an extended revision conference—we met three days in a row after school for about 90 minutes each visit. (NoteI am absolutely aware that this kind of one-on-one time with a student writer is a luxury and impossible to have during school hours with a classroom full of students regardless of the grade level.) We started with a look at his second rough draft to see what kind of feedback his teacher had provided. What we discovered was, in my mind, a missed opportunity.

Missed Opportunity—As Vicki emphasized in her post, “…a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision…” Student K’s rough draft did not contain any formative feedback from the rubric. None! The only feedback to Student K were comments related to the paper’s formatting—the word “header” had been written at the top of each page and “works cited/word count” was written on the last page. This is not the kind of specific feedback that opens the to door to meaningful revision. From teacher feedback like this, Student K (or any student) could make the assumption that everything else about the piece was at least “OK—good to go.”

Student writers need to know both what they’re doing well and what they might need to work on to improve their piece. I like to use a feedback term/practice borrowed from a colleague—Stars and a Staircase. Star comments let the student writer know what’s really working in their piece, reinforcing their strengths, while Staircase comments hone in on specific areas where the reader is experiencing confusion or needing to ask questions. These comments help guide the writer’s revision, moving their piece up the “staircase.” As Vicki states in her post, “Just saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘ I loved this piece!’ isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece…” Feedback, in the form of “scores” or descriptors from a writing guide or written comments from the reader/teacher, is not only about addressing the current piece or assignment, it’s about arming student writers with the tools, confidence, and independence for “the next piece.”

So, in an attempt to nurture the independence that meaningful, specific feedback is able to provide a student writer, the first thing I asked Student K to do was to read his piece out loud with a pen in his hand. While reading his own work aloud, he is both “reader” and “writer.” If he stumbles over something, it’s more than likely that any other reader would as well. The pen was for marking anything he was confused by or didn’t like and for making quick changes/corrections—spelling, missing words, punctuation, sequencing, etc. He was well over his word limit (let the record show that I’m not a fan of “word counts”), so he was also on the lookout for words/phrases/sentences he could eliminate. The pen was also for him to notice and highlight what he felt (as the reader) was working well. We didn’t total up the number of times his pen hit his paper, but it was well over twenty. We did, however, categorize the things he noticed in his own work—here are a few:

*Repetitive word choices

            *Moments of confusion

            *Repetitive transitional language—lots of “and thens”

            *Missing transitions between paragraphs

            *Repeated sentence beginnings—He, The, They, etc.

            *Confusing conclusion—(confused by his own conclusion!)

            *Inconsistent verb tense

            *Figurative language     

I asked him to reflect on this, and the first thing he said was, “I noticed a lot!” Absolutely—imagine that! I asked him to describe a highlight (a Star) and a work-light (a Staircase-something to work on) from his read-through. Student K gave himself a Star for two examples of figurative language he used while describing the two young men featured in his piece:

Example #1“He once was a nice young boy, the type of kid that your parents would want you to hang out with and have as a friend. However, after he took advantage of a female classmate while she was intoxicated at a party, everything changed. Everything. Now people hesitated to make eye contact with him, as if he was Medusa.”

Example #2—“Harris looked older than most of the kids in his grade because he actually was. Being held back two years gives you that certain look. Even in kindergarten, the teachers used to shake their heads, almost as if they could already see the path he was headed towards. Timothy was not the traveler that Robert Frost wrote about. No matter what two roads diverged in front of him, he always took the wrong path. At 2:30 in the morning, when most people are sleeping, the wrong path led Timothy, with his partner in tow, to the Plaid Pantry convenience store.”

Neither of these examples attracted any attention from Student K’s teacher even though the rubric for this task emphasizes the use of figurative language in learning target #3—I can write narrative pieces. Student K’s Staircase comments for himself focused on eliminating/replacing repetitive word choices and sentence beginnings, and on the clarity of his conclusion—he didn’t like the way his piece ended.

At this point, I wanted him to “assess” (not score, not grade) his own writing again, this time using the rubric he had been given. I suggested he look for descriptors—not worrying about the “score”—that he felt matched his writing. He found at least one in each of the four categories, but it was not easy for two reasons.

Missed Opportunity—First, he told me that in this class, he had not used a rubric to “assess” his own writing in this way before. He had also not experienced the practice of using a rubric to “assess” anyone else’s writing. (Deep—possibly judgmental—sigh!) Borrowing words from Vicki’s post again, I (we) believe students need to have “…regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising…” both the writing of others, “…students and professionals…” and their own writing. This practice develops independence in student writers who, over time, begin to take charge of their own writing process. In a classroom setting, the discourse (discussion) between students (and the teacher) as they “assess” writing samples, clarifies exactly how a rubric will be used when their own writing is being “assessed” by the teacher using the same rubric. Student K experienced a second problem as he attempted to use the rubric himself. The descriptors in the task-specific rubric he had were really more of a checklist of all the things the teacher would be looking for—“There is correct use of dialogue…,” “There is some use of imagery that appeals to the senses…,” “There are 2 + rough drafts included…,” “Story opens with complete background information…” The reality was that his personal assessment became a process of going through the rubric in a “Got-it, Got-it, Need-it…” manner. For me, that’s one of the problems with many task-specific rubrics. It’s possible to say ”Check!” to each of listed items—Task completed!—and still end up with a piece of writing that is missing something important to the overall quality of the writing—the experience of the reader/audience, the reason for writing in the first place.

Following Student K’s two rounds of personal “assessment,” I did offer some of my own feedback but focused my comments/help on a few of the items he had noticed himself, particularly his conclusion. I left Student K loaded down with a pile of his own revision suggestions, sprinkled with a few of my own.

Just last week, Student K let me know he had received his writing back with a rubric score and a grade, and of course, I was anxious to hear about it.

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

Missed Opportunity—The pictures I’ve included here show the rubric as it was returned to Student K. Based on the X marks, we determined that his rubric scores on the four learning targets were 2, 3, 3, 3. I asked him what the scores meant to him and he replied, “That means I got a B.” We then looked at the paper to review the written comments. (By this point I’m admitting that the judgmental gloves are off!) Student K decided he had found a tiny Star at the end of the comment: “A long falling action but fitting resolution.” Reacting to the handful of Staircase comments—“Use better description,” “Be specific,” “What neighborhood?” “You need much more on this climax! “—Student K said (exactly what I was thinking), “Why didn’t he say something about these on my rough draft?” What really baffled me was that the rubric scores and the written comments, whether taken separately or in combination, had not communicated a clear message to the writer. Quality writing assessment had not been achieved! If Student K’s only takeaway was that he had received a “B,” the teacher could have saved time by not using the rubric or writing even limited comments. Just slap a “B” at the top and move on to the next assignment. (Now that’s judgmental!) Many teachers will say that it takes too much time to use rubrics and personal comments. I contend that by nurturing the independence of student writers—arming them with writing guides and training them to be self-assessors first—actually saves assessment time for teachers.

Knock—Knock! Bang—Bang! Ding—Dong!

Who’s at the door? It’s Opportunity! That’s one of the things you can count on as a teacher—lots of opportunities for taking advantage of instructional opportunities! If your goal as a writing teacher is developing confident, capable student writers, then for me, the path is quality instruction informed by quality assessment. As Vicki urged at the end of her post, “It all comes back to concepts.” And to teach the concepts of good writing, it takes specific practices: First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.”

Opening clear, purposeful lines of communication between you and your student writers is what is most important in helping them know where they stand as writers today and where they could be standing tomorrow.

Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our four picks for this post:

  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  • Soul Serenade: Rhythm and Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

I have been binge-reading the YA books of author Andrew Smith and want to share some thoughts about this powerful writer. His books are definitely for the grade 9+ crowd, dealing with sensitive, timely, and important issues. His characters and storylines are brutally honest, frequently strange, and often laugh-out-loud.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


Introduction. A few years ago, English Journal (Vol 96, No. 1, September 2006) published my article titled “In Defense of Rubrics.”  At the time, some writers and teachers felt wary about using rubrics, describing them as restrictive and inhibiting (a point of view with which I strongly disagreed and still do). Recently, some new criticisms have arisen, with one colleague going so far as to decry, “Burn your rubrics!” Seriously?

This apparent fear of domination by rubrics strikes me as a serious overreaction.  I recognize (and agree with) my colleagues’ passion for a real, personal, unrehearsed response to student writing. Every writer on earth wants that. I just don’t think that needs to be the only kind of response. I don’t even think it’s enough—usually. True, rubrics don’t tell everything, but they tell a lot. And if a rubric is well done, it offers information a student can use to see his or her writing with new eyes, and to revise with purpose. Can a comment do that? Sometimes. Not always.

My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?

Two caveats. When people have a problem with rubrics, I’ve found that the source of the problem often lies not in the rubrics themselves but in how assessors are using them. So here are two important caveats. One, don’t use anyone else’s rubric until you’ve reviewed it and made sure that what it assesses matches what you value. Don’t think that just because it says “Writing Rubric” at the top it will address the same qualities of writing that matter to you. Many writing rubrics are weighted heavily in favor of conventions, and may favor formulaic structure as well. If the values within the rubric don’t reflect your writing philosophy, look further or revise the rubric to suit your needs. Better still, if you’re ambitious enough, create your own.

And two, don’t be too literal in your interpretation. Rubrics are written by humans (though some do sound suspiciously robotic) for use by humans. That means you get to think. You get to be flexible. I used to tell people, “It’s a best match kind of enterprise.” There are few papers out there that will match every bullet for a given level within a given trait. That’s not even intended. Here’s an example from our six-trait rubric for ideas, describing a level 6 paper:

  • Clear, focused, compelling—holds reader’s attention
  • Strong, riveting main point, idea, story line
  • Striking insight, in-depth knowledge of topic
  • Takes reader on journey of understanding
  • Significant, telling details that go beyond the obvious


If that sounds like a lot to expect, keep in mind that it isn’t necessary for a given piece to include everything mentioned. There are multiple bullets because writing traits—things like ideas, organizational design, or voice—are extraordinarily complex. You simply can’t sum them up in a word or phrase. Descriptors provide a synthesis of responses by countless careful readers, and together represent the essence of what you’re likely to see (or hear) in a performance at a given level. Many times, teachers zero in on a particular  phrase that speaks to them. Maybe telling details speaks to you. Or journey of understanding. Or striking insight. And in the classroom, teachers often add their own shades of meaning—explores a key question, for example.

Four advantages to rubrics. In my 2006 article, I cited four advantages to using rubrics, and I still believe in all four. First, writing down what we value in writing (or any endeavor) gives us a basis for conversation. Once I put my thinking about the trait of ideas in writing, you’re free to add your two cents’ worth—you might say, “You didn’t mention imagination. I think that’s important.” You’re right—it is. I may think that’s covered under riveting, but if you disagree, you can add a line: Shows imagination. Now you’ve made the rubric your own, and that’s a good thing because what you teach your students should come from you.

Second, rubrics cause us to reflect. Almost the moment you put your thoughts about writing on paper, the need to revise and refine grabs you—as it should. You begin with one description of ideas or voice or whatever, and on reflection say to yourself, no, that’s not quite it. As you work on making your definition increasingly precise, you need to look at various pieces of writing, some strong and compelling and some not, so that you can describe what you see—and what you feel. Remember, good descriptors are about reader response. That means they’re based on the experience of reading actual text. As you strive to make your language mirror your thinking, you are, at the same time, teaching yourself to read with exquisite awareness. Rubrics are living, breathing documents. They are never finished because our thinking about what we value is never finished.

Here’s another point often overlooked. Many rubrics out there (or standards, for that matter) are nothing more than glorified wish lists. In other words, they represent what someone wishes students could do, not what successful students (or other writers) are actually doing. There’s a big difference. Rubrics based upon firsthand analysis of actual performance are inevitably more realistic in their expectations. They don’t set the bar for success at some unachievable level almost no one can hope to reach, nor do they define beginning levels of performance in harsh, derisive terms that make writers at that level want to just lie down and give up. Their range of performance is grounded in reality, with the understanding that some performances will exceed all expectations. After all, you might have a Sherman Alexie, Kathryn Erskine, or Walter Dean Myers in your classroom right now.

Third, rubrics keep us honest. When we commit our thinking to paper, we let students in on what it is we value so they don’t have to guess. That’s a simple question of fairness. Let’s not be afraid to put ourselves on the line. Our students cannot read our minds, and they deserve our honesty. Admittedly, sharing what we value in performance puts a lot of power in the hands of the performers—and this does make some people uneasy. Once criteria are in the open, students have the right to disagree with our assessments of their work, and now they have a basis for doing so—something they do not have with letter grades, which generally come without definitions or specified expectations. (In fact, the critic who cried “Burn your rubrics!” might have more appropriately said, “Burn your grade books!”) I once asked a group of teachers to give me their definitions of the grade B-. Responses ranged from “Just barely getting it” to “Almost there! A good effort!” Those are strikingly different messages. They’re about as different, in fact, as scores of 2 and 4 on an analytical rubric. A student once told me she would rather receive an F than a C since an F translates as “You didn’t care enough to try” while a C means “You tried but failed anyway.” You might define these grades differently, of course—but that’s the point, isn’t it? Shouldn’t message sent match message received?

Fourth—and most important by far—a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision, giving student writers an insider’s view of what makes writing work. This is the reason that my colleague Jeff Hicks and I took to calling rubrics “writing guides.” The word “rubrics,” carries a certain connotation of “rules.” A writing guide doesn’t lay down the rules of good writing. It isn’t a set of standards, either. The six-trait writing guide is literally a description of what writing looks like as it evolves through the process of revision.

A writing guide written in student friendly language gives young writers independence. It allows them to determine on their own, quite apart from any assessment or comments we may provide, whether they have been successful with their writing—and if not, what they can do about it.

This kind of independence takes more than just handing out writing guides, of course. It only happens in classrooms where students have regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising the writing of others, both other students and professional writers. As they review a wide range of documents from many sources and genres, they need to ask questions like these: Were the ideas well developed, and if so, how did the writer accomplish that? Was it explanations, examples, details, imagery, or what? Is the organization easy to follow, and if so, what made it easy? Was it the underlying structure, the clear transitions from point to point, the author’s effort to stay on track and omit irrelevant details, or something else?

Mental rubrics: We’re all using them! I believe firmly that all people use rubrics—including people who claim to dislike or mistrust them. These critics don’t write their rubrics down—they don’t commit to public scrutiny; they just keep them tucked away in their heads. But their comments allow us to infer what they value. Though some writing coaches will maintain that their comments are spontaneous and individual to each piece of writing, I believe that if those comments were recorded, they would reveal surprising threads of continuity. A rubric simply captures those threads and makes them visible.

The truth is, we all use mental rubrics daily, as a matter of routine. When you choose a place to go for dinner, you probably don’t whip out a rubric. (Neither do I—that’s only a rumor.) But you know what you’re looking for, don’t you? Your “10 Traits of a Good Restaurant” are just as clear in your mind as if you had put them on a rubric—ambiance, good food, great wine list, a view, snappy service, cleanliness, music you can talk over, easy parking, fair prices, comfortable seating, etc.  Your traits may differ from mine, but the point is, you could write them down if someone asked.

I recently read a book on writing that included a rather harsh indictment of rubrics. I won’t mention the title because that might look as though I’m criticizing the book and I’m not. It’s a very good book. But I found it ironic that the author opposes the use of rubrics when the whole book is itself a rubric. It’s very easy to identify the traits the author values: vivid detail, lively dialogue, voice, appealing leads, memorable endings, and risk taking. Just sharing these traits with students, even without extended definitions or any point system, would be helpful in any classroom using this book as a resource. My point is, why not be open about it?

Scripts—or reminders? Some critics argue that using a rubric causes you to script your comments. This strikes me as both absurd and comical enough to warrant its own animated film. Who are these mechanized, cartoon teachers anyway? I want to meet them. I have known hundreds of teachers who used six-trait writing guides in their classrooms, and not a one of them needed or would ever submit to a script. Teachers—at least the ones I have known—are pretty independent, opinionated people. They question everything. But they also know when something rings true. As many have told me, “I was always responding to this elusive something in my students’ writing. Now I have a name for it. Voice.” They don’t need to describe voice in the words of the rubric—but they love having a name for that force that keeps them turning pages.

While I do not believe in scripting comments, whether for assessment or instruction, I think reminders can be helpful, especially in a situation like conferring where we strive, all of us, to ask the right question or say the words that will take a writer forward. For some teachers, conferring comes as naturally as breathing, and if you’re one of those gifted people, you have my deepest admiration.

It doesn’t come easily to everyone, though, any more than say, writing a letter or making a speech. But if you’ve ever used a writing guide with clear, well-articulated criteria, you have writers’ language to work with. You hear in your head echoes of things like voice, strong verbs, enticing leads, words that wake you up, details that make you feel as if you’re right there or teach you something new. Those echoes just might make it easier to offer a suggestion or ask a leading question. Naturally, you can put your own spin on such criteria. I do. Instead of saying, “Your ideas are not fully developed,” I’d be much more likely to say, You wrote a first line. Hey, that’s a start. Can you tell me what happens next? You talk and I’ll make some notes . . .  Instead of saying, “More sensory detail is needed here,” I would probably ask, If I closed my eyes, what details about that old house would I still notice?

I can interpret, adapt, infer, and invent. I’ll bet you can, too. Can’t you?

Comments—pluses and pitfalls. Some critics reject writing guides because they feel we should talk to students from the heart, that nothing takes the place of personal comments. Actually, I agree with this. I just happen to think comments and rubrics can work in harmony. Both are important—but they offer different kinds of information. A rubric provides the sort of overview that’s hard to replicate through comments alone unless you’re willing to write an essay—and don’t forget, that means for every student every time. Criteria provide enough information to writers so that we, the coaches, don’t have to start from scratch. We don’t have to say everything. But we do need to say some things.

Whether verbally in a conference or in writing, your students need to hear your honest and immediate impressions. They need to know if you are shocked, excited, delighted, touched, saddened, bewildered, surprised, curious, revolted, or mystified. After all, rubrics cannot say all there is to say about a piece of writing. But news flash: Neither can comments, whether oral or written.

To imagine that comments will always be nurturing, responsive, understandable, original, relevant, witty, perceptive, inspiring, and well-received is to live in a dream world. If you’ve received such comments on your writing, you are fortunate. The truth is many comments are hard to interpret, too short to be helpful, or even—in the worst case scenario—hurtful. And it’s often those hurtful ones that stick in the minds of writers, sometimes for years. Following are a few comments recalled by teachers as much as thirty years after they were first scribbled on some piece of writing or other:

  • You missed the point completely—F.
  • This is basically verbal vomit.
  • Your writing reminds me of a porcupine—many points leading in meaningless directions.
  • I can’t believe what I see here. There is nothing of worth. It is only the documentation that boosts this paper to a D-.
  • Reading this has depressed me more than I can say.
  • Lay off the exclamation points. This isn’t that exciting.
  • You will never, ever be an author.
  • Do the world a favor. Don’t write.

It takes a pretty strong-willed, confident writer to pop back up after this kind of sucker punch and announce, “Hold on—I haven’t finished revising! I’m going to turn this around!” That, as you know well, is not what happens. Negative comments and the paper they’re written on wind up in the trash—as they should. They’re energy zappers and they chip away at what a writer needs far more than clever ideas, and that is the courage to keep going.

It isn’t just the negative comments that are less than helpful, either. Even when you are deeply moved by a writer’s work, even when every fiber in you wants to be encouraging, there’s an art to commenting effectively.

Just saying “Good job!” or “I loved this piece!” isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece:

  • Your lead got me hooked, but what kept me going was trying to figure out if technology actually is making us smarter or making decisions for us. Great discussion—I like the way you brought in so many perspectives and still came up with a conclusion.
  • It was fascinating to see what good escape artists octopuses are. How would it work if you added the story of one octopus escaping from a tank as an example? By the way, you’ve got me curious enough to visit the aquarium.
  • Your character Anna speaks with such a strong voice. That’s pretty daring too because she isn’t very likeable, but I could never wait to find out what she would say next. How did you make her sound so authentic? And is she a villain? I can’t decide. Can you?
  • It’s great that you decided to use a setting as your lead, especially in a nonfiction piece. I’d love to have you look at the lead from Sy Montgomery’s book The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo. Her approach is so much like yours, I think reading this might give you some ideas for expanding your own lead.
  • I sense you’re struggling a little with this essay on your father and your growing sense of hostility. Things like this can be difficult to write about. I wonder what would happen if you put some of tension you’re trying to describe into dialogue.
  • This topic you chose is an important one, but I’m just not hearing the passion in your voice I heard when you were writing about endangered species. Maybe you’d want to consider returning to that topic—it’s so big you can write about it more than once, you know.

Clearly, comments matter. However, it seems to me ridiculous to argue that personal comments are more effective than writing guides or rubrics—or vice versa. They’re different. Why should this be an either-or sort of question? We need both. But just as we have to ensure that our comments are specific and helpful, we have to create writing guides that work. How do we do that?

Take it from teachers—not test makers. It starts with development. I’m surprised by the number of people who still believe the six-trait writing guide came from a testing company—from people (some of whom don’t even write—or teach) just sitting around saying, “Here are the things students should be able to do.” I wouldn’t trust any writing guide developed that way, and that isn’t how the six-trait model got its start.

Our writing guide came from teachers, people who interact with students all the time, and who have realistic goals about performance—and extensive practice commenting on that performance. I think this is important because it affects the kind of language you’ll find in the six-trait rubrics. It isn’t mysterious, presumptuous, arrogant, or demanding. It’s descriptive, clear, and respectful, and it’s meant to speak to teachers, parents, and students. I think that is why it has worked so well in so many classrooms. The development process didn’t begin with brainstorming. It began with reading, with a close-up look at the performance the guide is meant to assess.

A group of 17 teachers from the Beaverton School District met for several weeks to read and discuss the writing of thousands—yes, thousands—of students in grades 3 through 12. I was privileged to work with them, and to record and synthesize their observations. Batch by batch, we ranked the papers in three groups: strong, developing, or needs work. As we read, we documented the reasons behind those rankings. Later, in reviewing our reasons, we discovered that the same six features or qualities or traits had influenced all of us: ideas and development of those ideas through details and examples, organizational design, voice, word choice and phrasing, sentence fluency (including both structure and cadence), and conventions.

The writing guide that emerged offered us a language for talking to students about writing—talking to them like the writers they were, making them insiders. Suddenly, students were discussing things like voice and fluency, design and detail. And some teachers thought that students could do even more—especially one teacher, who had a vision.

As fourth grade teacher Ronda Woodruff was reading papers for the district’s annual assessment, she commented, “As I’m reading this rubric, it just hits me—these are the things writers do when they revise. They add details, they revise leads, they change wording. It’s all right here. We need to teach this to students.” Not everyone agreed—at first. A few said, “You can’t teach students to be assessors. That’s the teacher’s job.” They could hardly have been more wrong.

Those early skeptics were equating assessment with judgment or grading. As the six-trait model was about to teach us all, assessment is so much more than that. It’s a doorway to understanding.

Students quickly came to understand that the trait of ideas, for example, was about message, clarity, and detail. They understood that organizational design was about structure, leads, transitions, pacing, and conclusions. Virtually all of them loved assessing anonymous pieces of writing; they couldn’t get enough. Not only did they assess student writing, but they soon began reviewing pieces from the newspaper, from journals, from school communications, government PR documents, advertisements, cookbooks, and scenes from novels. They didn’t do all this by memorizing the language of the rubrics. They did something far more effective and long lasting: They internalized the concepts behind that language.

As weeks passed, students became highly adept assessors. They got incredibly good at identifying jargon or fuzzy thinking or missing transitions. Suddenly, revision was transformed from an overwhelming task nobody wanted to tackle into a set of smaller, manageable options at which kids were rapidly becoming  experts: taking out unneeded information, replacing weak verbs with stronger ones, adding sensory details, combining choppy sentences, detangling gangly ones, writing new leads or endings, or . . . the possibilities were endless. And best of all, students could come up with their own ideas for revision.

Personalizing. As those students demonstrated so well, reflective readers don’t memorize rubrics, or enslave themselves to rigid language. In fact, just the opposite happens. Over time, they tend to personalize rubrics. I know I do this.

Take voice, for example. My personal definition has been shaped by my reading over decades. I know voice comes in many guises. It can make me laugh—sometimes. Or jar my thinking, move me to tears, cause me to reread, or make me so frightened and fascinated at the same time that the only thing harder than reading on is stopping. Mark Twain’s writing has shaped my definition of voice. So has Mary Karr’s, Jerry Seinfeld’s, Carl Sagan’s, Sy Montgomery’s, Michio Kaku’s, Bill Bryson’s, Amy Tan’s, Stephen Hawking’s, Frank McCourt’s, Laura Hillenbrand’s, Gary Paulsen’s, and Anne Lamott’s, to name only a few. These voices are nothing alike. But they can all make you stop and listen.

Whenever I hear the word voice, I recall the moment my friend Darle Fearl, a veteran teacher and one of about thirty six-trait raters on our early assessment team, brought the whole state assessment to a halt when she held up her hand and said, “You guys—you have to hear this.”

As we lowered our pencils, Darle began to read a three-page student paper about a boy and his dog, and with the first lines, the room fell silent  . . . “I don’t get along with people too good, and sometimes I am alone for a long time. When I am alone, I like to walk to forests and places where only me and the animals are. My best friend is God, but when I don’t believe he’s around sometimes, my dog stands in.” The paper was untitled—but forever after (and I have it in my file to this day) we called it Fox, after the name of the boy’s intrepid dog, who once tried to save him from drowning—“He was too little to save me if I was really drowning, but it was the thought that counts—I owe him one.” Well, writing guides cannot very well include language like “Reminds reader of the paper called Fox” or “Gives the reader chills” or “Causes gatherings to fall silent.” Such thoughts need to be shared personally—I agree.  But here’s what a score of 6 in voice does communicate to the writer:

  • As individual as fingerprints
  • Reader cannot wait to share it aloud
  • Mirrors writer’s innermost thoughts and feelings
  • Passionate, vibrant, electric, compelling
  • Pulls reader right into the piece


Are these criteria restrictive? I don’t think so. Are they formulaic, as some critics have suggested? Hardly. Do they tell all there is to know about a given piece of writing? Absolutely not. Nor are they meant to. But they go well beyond “Good job!” They tell a writer that his piece of writing was moving and individual, that he put himself into what he wrote. That may not be enough, but it’s a good start.

We can then complement this information through our own words: “This piece hit me so hard I had to catch my breath. I could tell from the first paragraph how much you and Fox loved each other, and how special that pond was to you. My favorite part was Fox trying to save you from drowning—it was hilarious and touching at the same time. And by the way—I love how you played with the grammar to create this unique and moving voice.” Together, criteria and comments tell the student not only that he succeeded, but how and why.

Getting innovative. Ronda Woodruff, whose vision opened the door for all of us who later taught traits to students, refused to give scores of 1 or 2. She said there was no point in low scores, that such papers were not yet ready for assessment, and that’s how she marked them for students: Not ready yet. The lowest score she would give was a 3 on a five-point scale, which might have translated to a 3 or 4 on a six-point scale. Ronda took her students from “not yet ready” to “ready” by asking questions. And while we usually think of questions as something relegated to the one-on-one conference, I’ve often thought how useful it could be to incorporate them right into our rubrics in place of descriptors. Let me show you what I mean. Right now, the level 1 descriptors for the trait of ideas read as follows:

  • No clear main idea or story yet
  • Topic not yet defined in writer’s mind
  • Reader left with many questions
  • Notes, first thoughts, prewriting
  • Writing to fill the page


I think we could replace these bulleted descriptors with questions a student might ask him- or herself:

  • What topic would you like to write about? Write it down.
  • If you aren’t sure, would you like help exploring topics?
  • What question or questions do you have about this topic? Make a list.
  • What questions do you think a reader might have? List those, too.
  • Write one sentence about this topic that you know to be true. Now, let’s talk!


Questions like these could help a young writer recognize a score of 1 for what it is—not failure, but a beginning point. They would also give the writer an immediate sense of direction, and something concrete to discuss in a conference.

Criteria + comments = powerful assessment. I said in 2006 that we should respond to student writers the way we would want someone to respond to our own writing. I still think that’s a pretty good rule to go by. None of my teachers used writing guides. In fairness, they didn’t hold writing conferences either. Nor did they offer examples of what they were looking for. Some, I’m convinced, didn’t know. Were they consistent in their written comments? Not in the least. Most of their comments were cryptic and fell under the “Good job” or “Try harder” category. In a few classes we learned, over time, what to expect—which teachers valued clear thinking, which ones wanted research, which were sticklers for conventions, and which ones had a sense of humor. Often, we earned extra points for simply turning a paper in on time—though obviously, the punctuality enthusiasts were “assessing” and rewarding something quite different from good writing.

Did our grades improve through the year? A bit, sure. After all, we’d become super sleuths who could read teachers’ preferences with mind blowing acuity. But just imagine how many more of us might have succeeded as writers, how much further we might have gone if we’d had examples to review and discuss, some writers’ language to guide us, and a chance (oh, hallelujah) to wear the assessor’s hat for a change, and assess other students’ work, professional writing—or (here’s a thought) writing done by some outrageously plucky teacher who not only wrote alongside us, but was brave enough to share the results.

It all comes back to concepts. The secret to solving this criteria vs comments riddle lies within one word: concepts. In deciding how best to help students write and revise (which is the heart of all writing), we have to ask, “How will we teach them the concepts of good writing?” I think this takes several things. First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.

If you are using a rubric or writing guide, don’t abuse it. Allow it to be flexible, changeable, and ever-evolving—like you. Don’t have students memorize the language. Why would you? Remember that it’s not the wording that counts but the concepts behind that wording. The words on the rubric don’t sum up the definitive way of thinking about any trait. They’re just a launching platform for further thinking, reading, and exploring.

If your students understand the concepts of ideas, organization, voice, and other traits, and if they have practice assessing many kinds of writing and discussing the results, something magical will happen. Next time you confer with them, or the time after that, you won’t have to choreograph the BIG REVISION PLAN. Your independent writers will have their own ideas about what to do. And guess what? Don’t take this the wrong way, but their ideas might be even better than yours.


Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our four picks for this post:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Room by Emma Donaghue
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steve Johnson
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

between the world and meroomghost maporphan master's son

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Jeff continues his work teaching—and rumor has it that his upcoming post will be based on that experience. I am enjoying a book from the world of creative nonfiction (title to be revealed later), and will share it when I return.


Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


snakes, alligators, and broken hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. 2015. Written and illustrated by Sneed B. Collard III. Design by Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli. With animal artwork by Tessa K. Collard. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing. 174 pages including Epilogue and Author’s Note.

Genre: Memoir

Ages: Upper elementary and middle school

 Fire Birds! cover


Sneed portraitAuthor and biologist Sneed Collard is known primarily for children’s nonfiction books that resound with voice and feed our imaginations with curious, often startling details about the world’s quirkiest inhabitants. Sea Snakes, Creepy Creatures, Alien Invaders, Animal Dads, A Whale Biologist at Work, The Deep Sea Floor, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, and Fire Birds are just a handful of the dozens of titles familiar to his fans. More recently, Sneed has ventured into fiction as well, with books like Dog Sense, Double Eagle, and Hangman’s Gold.

IMG_5884 (2)Just weeks ago, Collard released his memoir, an account of his adventures growing up as the son of a biologist. In this newest book, he shows how his experiences—from joyful to dark—influenced his desire to become a scientist himself and a writer as well. It’s a lively, often humorous account that tracks Sneed’s life from preschool days as a young snake and turtle collector through that last fateful summer before high school—which turned out to be a time of life changing decisions.

The art of memoir

In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr reminds us that memoir is a demanding genre because in writing about your own life, “you’re making an experience for a reader.” She adds, “You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). Calling up early memories can be challenging, even painful. The things readers want to hear about are often the very moments writers most want to bury. Sneed Collard’s memoir offers up a rich collection of memories, some hilarious, and some touching or troubling. Through tales of friendship, divorce, alcoholism, love, loss, and a passionate curiosity for nature and all life, he does indeed, in the words of Mary Karr, create an experience for us. For Collard’s many fans, this long-awaited book will be like having a good conversation with an old friend.


In the Classroom

  1.  Reading. The book comprises 31 short chapters and an epilogue, making it ideal for sharing aloud in short increments. Or, especially if you have students who are familiar with and fans of Sneed Collard’s numerous other books (Note the book list in the very front of the memoir), Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts makes an ideal subject for review and discussion in a small book group.
  2. Memoir—a special genre. What do your students know about the genre called memoir? You might open your discussion of Sneed’s book by asking how they define memoir (they might even write a short definition and you can read these aloud later). Synonyms include record, journal, dossier, log, history, and biography. The dictionary defines memoir as a personal account of historical events—or events in which one took part. According to writers like Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir, 2015), however, this definition doesn’t go nearly far enough. As Karr has told us, a good memoir creates an experience for the reader—and it does so through the author’s careful selection of events he or she is willing to share. Given this expanded definition, what challenges might a memoir writer face?
  3. Personal Connection. What other memoirs have your students read? Make a list. You may wish to read others in conjunction with Sneed Collard’s book—or afterward, as an extension of your study of memoir. Possibilities include the following (Add to this list to give your students a valuable resource):


  • The Secret Lives of Us Kids: A Childhood Memoir 1941-1945 by Bonnie Buckley Maldonado (2014)
  • I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure (2009)
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle with Clare B. Dunkle (2015)
  • My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel (2006
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, ed. Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography by Jerry Spinelli (1998)
  • Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry (2000)
  • When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (by renowned authors), ed. Louise Ehrlich (2012)


  1. It’s all about choices. “That night I tossed and turned in my bed, alternately steeling myself for the challenge ahead and trying to think of legitimate reasons for backing out.” This line comes from page 94 of Chapter 18: The Tower. Sneed is about ten years old, in Wakulla Springs, Florida—and trying to psych himself up for a jump off “the tower,” a legendary diving structure with platforms twelve, twenty, and a “soul-shaking” thirty-three feet above the water. If he goes off the top platform, he will avoid humiliation—but at what cost? Talk about the tower first. What does it symbolize for the young people of Wakulla? Then ask your students whether they have ever made a decision to do something that was “soul-shaking” scary. Most people face such a decision, sometimes many times, within their lives. Ask those who are willing to share some of these experiences, and join them by sharing one or two of your own. Tip: Decisions don’t need to involve life or death to be scary. For some students, a decision to speak up in class can be terrifying. Not all vivid memories are scary ones, either. They can also be wildly hilarious, stunningly surprising—or wondrously joyful. They can even be moments that seem insignificant in every way except the way they stick in your brain for months or years: like the first taste of a favorite food. Talk about what makes a moment memorable and about how writers choose which moments to include in creating the experience of memoir. In addition to the leap off the Wakulla Springs tower, what other particularly significant moments does Sneed Collard include in his memoir? Make a class list. (Note: If students have difficulty recalling, a review of the Table of Contents can be helpful.)


  1. Scope. It might seem logical that a memoir would run from the author’s birth to the “present”—whenever that may be. In fact, though, authors can define the span of time they wish to cover. Most do not begin with birth. Why would that be? Ask your students to recall their very earliest memories. How old were they at the time of those recollections? Sneed claims to recall events from as early as the age of two (see page 18). That’s very young indeed! Can any of your students go back that far? Can you? Notice also that this memoir ends during the final summer before Collard enters high school. He might have chosen to continue right up to 2016 and include his years of work as a researcher and writer. Why do your students think he chose instead to end the book when he did? Might this be a wise choice from a writer’s point of view? Could a writer decide to cover an even shorter span of time—say five years, or even less? What’s the shortest span of time a good memoir could cover? An hour? A day? A month? A year? Or would it need to be longer?


  1. Building a life map. Have your students ever created a life map? This activity is a highly useful precursor to writing a personal memoir. A life map is a sketched trail or pathway with milestones to mark important events or memories in a person’s life. The map can take the form of a simple geometric shape such as a circle or triangle, or it may wander randomly or in a serpentine fashion, or spiral out from a starting point. The number of milestones is determined by how many events the author wants to share. Those events might include things like making or losing a friend, graduating from a class or school, entering a competition, getting a pet, moving, leaving home—or any of a thousand other things. Anything the author deems significant can make the cut. The photo seen here shows a life map my friend Sally sketched some years ago. She chose to begin with her marriage, and included the birth of her son, a move to a new home, her divorce, various travels, her return to teaching, and her son Eric’s graduations (yes, two of them). She concluded with her decision to work with me training teachers—lucky break for me! Ask your students to sketch life maps of their own, including whatever events they like. If you decide to use these as a precursor to writing memoirs, give students a chance to meet in small groups to discuss their life maps and raise questions. This discussion helps writers recall details they may have left out.


  1. Leads. Ask your students if they can think of a clichéd (trite, that is) way to begin a biography or memoir. Too often, writers (including some students!) open any biographical piece (including a memoir) with the standard beginning: I (or name the subject) was born in (name the year) in (name the town). Why does this overused beginning put us to sleep almost instantly? Notice that author Sneed Collard found a completely different way to begin. Re-read the lead from Chapter 1. How would you describe it? What strategies does this author use to get us involved in his story? How long does it take him to tell us when he was born? (Hint: Chapter 2, page 17.) For all of Chapter 1, we are guessing at Sneed’s age during the whale episode. But—there could be some hints to help us. What are they? Why might a writer want to keep readers guessing about something for just a bit before sharing factual information?


  1. And more leads . . . Read a few more leads from various chapters in Sneed’s memoir. What do they have in common? How do they create interest or keep readers moving through the text?


  1. What about endings? Leads pull us into the writing, but endings can be just as important—sometimes even more so. Read some of the conclusions to chapters in Collard’s memoir. You’ll see that while they all have the sound and feel of an ending, they do not all serve the same function. What are some of the roles that endings play in this book? (Hint: Endings like the one to Chapter 12, page 60, seem to point ahead to new beginnings. The ending to Chapter 21, page 112, wraps up the event we’ve just been reading about—the jump off the dreaded tower.) We often think of transitions as single words or phrases: after a while, next, on the other hand, nevertheless, in addition, and so on. Do leads and conclusions also serve as transitions? Why is this so important in a longer piece?


  1. The beauty of the chapter. What is the longest piece your students—or you—have ever written? What are some of the structural devices writers use to break up a particularly long piece of text? (Hint: Your students might mention, for example, paragraphs, subheads, white space, illustrations—and of course, chapters.) What design and structural elements does author Sneed Collard use to divide his memoir into sections? Ask your students to imagine the same book without any paragraphs or chapters with titles. How inviting would such a book be? Would we read it? Then ask this question: How long should a book be before the writer decides to break it into chapters? If your students are writing pieces of, say, five pages or more, ask them to try dividing their writing into chapters (even if they only wind up with two or three). Discuss how they decide how many chapters to include and where the breaks should be. Does formatting by chapters make organization easier for the writer as well as the reader? How so?


  1. Chapter titles. Often authors simply identify chapters by number: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on. Sneed Collard obviously gave a great deal of thought to his chapter titles for this book. What does an author add by titling chapters? Which titles from Collard’s book are particularly appealing to your students as readers (Read the list aloud and ask for votes)? What makes some particularly inviting?


  1. Graphics. Most of this book is illustrated with photographs. Is this particularly appropriate for a memoir? Why? Notice that Sneed Collard has also chosen to add a few sketches of alligators and snakes drawn by his daughter Tessa. What do these drawings add to the flavor of the book?


  1. Voice. At one point, the author writes about his prowess in math (Chapter 16, page 80). He also adds, “I was no slouch in other subjects, either, though I scrawled the ugliest handwriting since Neanderthals had penned pictographs on cave walls thirty thousand years before.” What sort of voice is that? List some words to describe it. Then talk about the overall tone of the book. Is it warm, academic, formal, aloof, chatty, conversational, haughty, modest, or–? In describing it, ask students to identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to that voice? Is it the author’s choice of words, use of dialogue, the subject matter—or something else? How important is voice in memoir? Is it the voice that keeps us reading?


  1. Is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? As noted earlier, author Mary Karr cautions us that as a writer of memoir, “you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). But—is it possible for a writer recalling life events to ever tell the whole truth and nothing but? Before answering, read Sneed Collard’s “Author’s Note” on page 171. He says, among other things, that “No one can tell his or her own story with complete objectivity. In telling our stories, we layer in our distorted memories, false perceptions, and viewpoints and prejudices.” How do we reconcile this personal perspective with Mary Karr’s demand for honesty? Have students discuss and/or write about this.


  1. Honesty. Unquestionably, honesty is one of the hallmarks of good memoir. Yet it’s difficult, even painful, to be honest about experiences that hurt us or revealed what we perceive as our weaknesses. In Chapter 22 (page 116), Collard writes about the humiliation of Junior High (Middle School) PE, in which students were ranked by proficiency in a very obvious way—through the color of their gym shorts. The least accomplished athletes donned the dreaded dark blue—and hated every wretched blue thread. As their skills grew, they could move up to red, green, silver, gold, and at the very pinnacle, the envied blue silk “that incited an almost godlike worship among all others.” Collard confesses, “Guess which color I wore? Stinking, humiliating blue.” Why is it we appreciate a writer’s honesty so much at moments like this? We laugh, yes, but what else do we feel? Ask your students to identify other moments from this memoir require true writing courage. Modeling opportunity: If you’re brave enough, you might write about an embarrassing or difficult moment of your own as a way of modeling this kind of honesty. Remind students that while honesty can be difficult, it adds immeasurably to the appeal of any good memoir. Does it influence voice as well? How? (Note: It is important for students to understand that no matter how much we value honesty in writers, they have the right to privacy. No author should be asked or expected to write about events or circumstances that are simply too uncomfortable to recall or relate. You can use your modeling opportunity to clarify this by talking about how you chose what to write about—and what to keep personal.)


  1. Epilogue. Read the author’s epilogue (page 167) aloud. What is the meaning of the word epilogue? What does an epilogue add that a final chapter from a book cannot? Your students may never have written an epilogue. It takes perspective, for one thing—and that can be difficult for a very young person to achieve readily. But you might try this: Ask students who write memoirs to set them aside for a period of time, even until towards the end of the school year. Then ask them to add an epilogue to the memoir they wrote weeks or months before. Talk about what new perspective can add to a piece of writing.


  1. Research. Wait a minute. Research for a memoir? Doesn’t it all just flow out of your head? Before answering that question, take time to read the author’s note of “Thanks” on pages 173-174. What do Sneed’s final remarks reveal about his own personal research for the book? What do they tell us about the nature of research itself? It’s not all about visiting the library! Note: If your students are writing their own memoirs, you might suggest that they investigate any family photo collections that might be available—and consider interviewing some of the people (parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors) who have been part of their lives. They may also wish to consider incorporating photos into the final drafts of their memoirs.


  1. The Journey. Note the full title once again: Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. In what sense is a memoir a journey? Think back to your definitions of memoir (point 2), what your students decided about the scope of a good memoir (point 5), and your life maps, if you made them (point 6). Then think about the concept of journey. What do we mean by this word? What happens to a person on a journey? Ask your students to identify passages that help define who Sneed Collard is at the beginning of his memoir—and who he becomes by the end. What forces shape this transition? Where did his journeys take him?

animal dadsleaving homepocket babiesThe Deep Sea Floordouble eaglelizards2Sneed 4

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki shares some thoughts on the use of rubrics—or writing guides, as we prefer to call them.

Then we’re tossing the ball into Jeff’s court for comments on some good books and writing ideas you will want in your life.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We appreciate your comments and your questions. Come often, and tell friends about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process, and literature, call Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.




London . . . and Letters

Happy New Year! (from Vicki)

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2016. It’s good to be back—back writing for Gurus, and back from a trip that proved to be one of the most fulfilling ever.

We’re going!

Last summer, my husband and I quite impulsively decided to sign up for a maiden voyage that would take us from Southampton to Miami in late fall. Crossing the Atlantic in November? What could go wrong? It honestly didn’t even occur to me to be apprehensive. Yet, I was truly amazed by the number of friends who felt compelled to remind us what had happened to the Titanic. I guess they thought we didn’t know—and that once we found out, we would reconsider. Not a chance. The cruise proved to be delightful—neither frightening nor dangerous (and even included some startlingly warm weather)—but the bonus for me was the dazzling five days we spent London, anticipating the cruise and seeing the sights. Samuel Johnson once said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. I think to anyone who’s been there, those words will ring true. Here are just a few highlights from an all-too-quick five days.

Home Base

We stayed at a hotel called the W, located just north of Trafalgar Square, adjacent to Chinatown. The W is flanked by casinos, coffee houses, and a candy store the size of Macy’s. Hence, the sidewalks swarm with foot traffic night and day. It doesn’t look like a hotel at all, so unless you’re a registered guest, you could very well walk right by, searching for the entrance. In a city of brick and stone, the W is wrapped in a silvery blue cocoon of frosted glass that makes it look less like a hotel and more like something out of Dr. Zhivago. The location—well, unless you can afford to be right smack on the Thames—is ideal. It’s within walking distance of countless favorite tourist destinations, restaurants, shops, wine bars, parks, and more.

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Inside, the W is beautifully decorated, and spotlessly clean. It is run by some of the friendliest and most courteous hotel staff I’ve ever encountered. The Brits have impeccable manners. What’s distinctive about this hotel, however, is that it caters—according to the staff members themselves, who shared this in a conspiratorial whisper—to Millennials. I didn’t know quite what this meant or why they felt they had to share this insider’s knowledge until I stepped into our room. Ah. Contemporary doesn’t do it justice. It’s right out of Star Trek. The room is tiny and makes maximum use of space, so shelves and cubby holes abound, though they’re often camouflaged, and most furniture serves dual functions. A chair might double as a cupboard. The artwork and lamps are interchangeable. If it doesn’t glow, it’s probably art. The snack bar is a barrel. Think about it. Round shapes hold more. Mirrors everywhere create the illusion of spaciousness, and although this definitely works, it can be disarming to see yourself continuously. The bed is low, so it helps if you haven’t been cheating on your yoga. The lights and heating/cooling are all run from a central panel right by the entry. You want to practice before going to bed because it’s easy to get up at 3, feel your way to the panel, hit the wrong button, and instantly transform the entire room into a blinding display.

That's right--this IS the shower.

That’s right–this IS the shower.

There is no bathroom. Oh, there are facilities—they just aren’t located in a room. The toilet is in one tiny closet with a door that swings open. If you’re modest, well, you need to get over it—or maybe just write “occupied” on a Post-It and slap it on the mirrored door. The light is on a timer, and you have only two minutes from the time you swing the door open before the light goes out. That’s fast. And let me say, it gets very dark in there. The shower is in the adjacent closet. Or, to be more precise: The adjacent closet IS a shower. The closet door IS the shower door. Towels hang from a center island—right smack in the middle of the dressing/eating/hair-styling/living/sitting area. You step out of the shower into the midst of everything and drip your way to the towel rod—hoping anyone sitting there is a good buddy.

Face it. We’re boomers, my husband and I. We love cozy corners with fuzzy throws and books, lights you can turn on and off from your reading chair, bathrooms with doors, and towels you can reach without waving hello to the company. Somehow, I think the W folks knew all that. But never mind. Though my vision of luxury is different from that of the W designers, travel is much more about adventure than about comfort—or at least it should be. Plumbing that works, clean quarters, comfortable bed, courteous staff. Check, check, check, check. I’ll go back to the W any time I get the chance. W staff, thanks for an incredibly good (and comic) time.

Big Red

Of course, out-and-about London is where the real fun begins. We rode the Big Red Bus on the long tour, and enjoyed every second—even though passengers who heard us going “Ahhhhhh!” might have thought differently. We sat in the front seat, which allowed us to see how perilously close our bus was coming not only to other buses, but to cars, bikers, and pedestrians as well. Maybe an inch really is as good as a mile. At any rate, the native Londoners never looked alarmed, which was reassuring, so we got quieter as the ride went on.

Crossing London Bridge

Crossing London Bridge

The narrative on the bus is fascinating. We learned, among other things, that the Brits of old, while still mannerly, could also be a bloody bunch, routinely hanging people in public, sometimes hundreds on a given day. Each condemned man or woman was allowed to make a farewell speech, though no cursing or defamation of royalty was allowed—as that would be unseemly. Perhaps the best thing about the Big Red Bus is that you can hop on and off at will, making it easily the cheapest, fastest way to get to points of interest, such as the Tower of London, Abbey Road, or St. Paul’s Cathedral.


A Touch of Shakespeare

How can you visit London without seeing Shakespeare’s Globe Theater? We couldn’t. It’s not the original, naturally—that burned in 1613. But it’s a striking new edition, located just blocks from where the original stood, and authentic inside and out, with the same heavy beams, winding wooden stairways, open air balconies, and majestic front-and-center stage visible from everywhere. Tours are led by members of the Globe acting company, who are incredibly well informed, animated, responsive to all comments and questions, and (at least in our case, with Kristin) hilariously funny.

IMG_1955Kristin informed us that the original theater had no restrooms. Remarkably, no one saw the need. They drank flagons of beer, however, since admission to the theater was only a penny, and for a penny more you could get a drink. Or you could bring your own and really economize. Those who stood on the ground in front of the stage (and that was the majority of viewers) simply relieved themselves on the spot—which of course, made for damp, malodorous conditions. Lavender, thyme, and other fragrant herbs were scattered abundantly to help compensate.

Perhaps the world's most iconic stage.

Perhaps the world’s most iconic stage.

How many people were injured when the original Globe burned? Kristin had us all guessing, but none of us were correct. The answer is none. Not one soul. However, three cloaks were burned and that made the London papers the following morning. Clothing was extraordinarily valuable in the 1600s. One poor fellow’s britches caught fire also, but he was quickly doused with beer—and luckily, that moment of indignity saved both him and the britches.

Open air--so it's closed October to May. Alas!

Open air–so it’s closed October to May. Alas!








Wine, Candles, Kipling, and Dickens

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

On the recommendation of our good friend and my co-author, Jeff Hicks, we took time to seek out Gordon’s Wine Bar (, located off Trafalgar Square, just up from the Thames River. Jeff had assured us that visiting here was less about wine than about the experience, and he couldn’t have been more right (even though the wine list is long enough to rival a phone directory). To enter, you go down rather steep stairs, and at first you cannot see a thing—including your feet. The whole place (except for the bar itself, which boasts one dim light) is lit by candles—small, well-used ones at that—so it takes some time for your eyes to adjust. Gordon’s is a cave, basically. It’s mostly stone—ceiling, walls, and floor, though there are a few wooden walls decorated with print memorabilia, some quite old.

IMG_1979The place opened in 1890, and is situated in Kipling House, home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680s. Both Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton are said to have written some of their works in the bar’s little parlor. It’s easy to imagine writers getting inspired in this place. Owners now describe it as Dickensian, but Alexandre Dumas also comes to mind. It is deliciously, irresistibly atmospheric, with funky wooden tables and chairs, none of them matching. Ceilings are low, and hazardous to those over 5’10”. I held my breath as one fairly tall, bald gentleman strolled happily by juggling several full glasses of wine.

If you enjoy good cheese, this is definitely your haunt. They boast numerous varieties (brie, chevre, dambuster, taleggio, Cotswold, gouda, cheddar, emmentaler, gruyere—my personal favorite—stilton, gorgonzola, and camembert, among others) and are happy to help you pair just the right wine with your selections. We came for lunch, so two slices of cheese sounded about right. Little did we know that at Gordon’s a “slice” is four ounces. And did I mention it comes with a small loaf of French bread? No one leaves hungry. In fact, if you clean your plate, it can be hard to leave at all. (We very nearly missed the production of “Wicked.” We had to run most of the way, which was cursedly uncomfortable, but probably in the end a good idea.) Gordon’s does not accept reservations, so it’s best to arrive on time. We got there just as the doors opened and for a few quiet minutes had our pick of inviting tables—all of which seemed to be tucked into cozy corners. Within less than an hour the place was packed and laughter was echoing off the stone walls. Thanks, Jeff, for one of the best recommendations ever.


What Acrophobia?

These days, any trip to London demands riding on the London Eye, one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels.

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

Lines are long, but if you reserve ahead, you can skip right to the reception desk and pick up your ticket—definitely the way to go. We did the champagne tour, which was more than worth the extra money. Instead of standing in a long queue, we waited in a beautiful lounge on a comfy couch, and were then escorted right through the crowds and onto the Eye.

The wheel never stops unless someone requires assistance getting on, so you step right on as it’s moving—thankfully, at a slow pace. It takes a half hour to do one rotation, and that’s the whole ride unless you make special arrangements. Each gondola is like a huge glass egg in a metal frame, and holds about 25 people, though our group included only 15 or so, making it easy to move about and take pictures. Seating is available in the center, but only those with the most acute acrophobia could tear themselves away from the spectacular views. Most of us were pressed right against the glass for the full half hour, as our guide Elvis pointed out various landmarks.

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

At the very top, you perch 450 feet above the Thames. From there, you can see nearly 30 miles in all directions. Several friends had told me they would never take this ride because they’re afraid of heights. Actually, the ride is both exhilarating and relaxing—and moves at such a leisurely pace that when you view the wheel from the Westminster Bridge, you can barely see it move. I was only fully aware of any motion as the ride neared its finish and I dreaded getting off. Gondolas are available for rent (two hours, or four rotations) to anyone wanting to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion . . . just saying, in case my husband is reading this . . .


Some Thoughts About Letters

Over the holidays, you may have spent some time thinking of what to give someone you love. It seems to me that one of the most thoughtful and personal of all gifts is also among the simplest—a letter.

This year, I received a number of letters, including a few form letters, but many emailed, typed, or handwritten just to me. Some were just a few lines—others went on for pages. They were filled with anecdotes, humorous moments, recipes (!), words of encouragement, and surprises. Each was a gift. Sue’s family had just welcomed two new grandchildren, while Becky’s was expecting the newest family member any day. Donna’s photos of her granddaughter (18 months) applying lipstick for the first time had me laughing uproariously. Leila made my mouth water as she described the elaborate Hawaiian and Japanese food she’d be cooking up for a holiday party. Bob and Kathie had just moved. Susan had a new job. Gail and Bill had adopted a rescue dog they named Boxit—because she’s been abused and so “boxes” herself in corners to feel safe. I wish them—and Boxit—all the best. And Sally wrote an inspiring letter, encouraging me to travel more, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s words: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Those words hung round me brighter than a golden necklace all holiday season, and made me feel as if I could go—well, anywhere. Isn’t that how great teachers always make you feel?Letters

Letter writing in the classroom is enjoying a hearty revival, and one I welcome because it is among the best ways to encourage voice. Here in Central Oregon, middle school students are participating in the Great American Mail Race. Language Arts students in Becky Aylor’s classes have written to more than 180 schools across the country—just this year. Some have written to students as far away as Greece, Turkey, Germany, and even China. They write their drafts longhand, then word process final drafts with help from 1:1 Chromebook and a computer program called Google Translate that can, with the click of a button, translate English text into any of numerous languages.

According to Aylor, the purpose of the race is to see who can receive the most responses—or a response from farthest away. As might be expected, the project not only increases students’ interest in writing, but also prompts discussions about geography, history, culture, and other topics. For many students (and this shouldn’t surprise us, really), this is the first encounter with the art of letter writing. They’ve never written one—never received one, either. They talk about basics like how to write an address properly, but also deeper concerns, like the value of a letter to the recipient.*

So . . . just a thought as we begin 2016. Lots of you will no doubt make holiday resolutions—save more money, work out routinely, read more . . . lose weight! All noble goals. But here’s one resolution you can keep for sure, with the knowledge it will touch someone’s life. Write at least one heart-felt letter to someone, anyone, who might love to receive it (and that’s nearly everybody). It is one of the truest ways to show love, friendship, compassion, or concern. It only takes a little time. And in this day of quick texting, an honest to goodness letter you can hold in your hands is a real treasure.

A few decades ago, a wise man named Garrison Keillor wrote an essay called “How to Write a Letter” (easy to find online, and well worth the search). In the long-gone days when writing assessment was an actual human activity, I used to read that essay aloud to raters who understood that students, like letter writers, were giving of themselves by putting their words on paper, and that such gifts must be honored. I especially loved Keillor’s closing remarks—“Probably your friend will put your letter away, and it’ll be read again a few years from now—and it will improve with age. And forty years from now your friend’s grandkids will dig it out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient eighties that gives them a sudden clear glimpse of you and her and the world we old-timers knew. You will then have created an object of art. Your simple lines about where you went, who you saw, what they said, will speak to those children and they will feel in their hearts the humanity of our times.”


* If you’d like more details about the Great Race project, please check, and search “Keeping letter writing alive in Sisters.” Special thanks to Correspondent Erin Borla, from whose November 25 article this information was taken.


Reading Recommendations

This is a new feature we’ll be including with most posts in 2016. Books listed here are not ones we’ll be reviewing on Gurus. They’re just recommended for your own personal, leisurely reading—and we urge you to look them up online for more information or to see what other readers have said:

  • The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Jeff is keeping busy teaching 5th graders and also teaching middle school math just for variety. We can be sure he’s also reading, however, so he’ll soon have books to share.

If you’ve ever attended any of my workshops, you’re likely a fan of Sneed Collard. I toted many of Sneed’s outstanding nonfiction books (Animal Dads, Pocket Babies, The Deep Sea Floor, and others) from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Hawaii. Those familiar with Sneed’s incredible body of work will be pleased to know that I will be reviewing his new autobiography Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. If you’re not a fan yet, please take time to look him up online or on Amazon. The sheer volume of his writing is impressive—and will make you look forward to discovering how this talented writer got his inspiration.Sneed portrait

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We are gaining new fans all the time, and we have you to thank! Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


Article referenced: “Omission: Choosing what to leave out” by John McPhee. The New Yorker, September 14, 2015. Pages 42-49.


I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine. An actual physical copy of The New Yorker arrives in the mail each week, along with an email reminding me that I also have access to the new issue (and archives) online. I’ve been a subscriber for years, and every week when the new issue arrives, I follow a pretty set routine: I look carefully at the cover to see what current news story, seasonal event, national figure, pop culture icon, or holiday is being satirized, glorified, or honored, before I flip through the magazine, back to front, carefully reading each comic.  Of course, I check out the table of contents for articles of interest. I take the subscription card, which falls out anyway, and use it to bookmark the article I want to read first. It’s a great system, really. But there is a problem. The magazine is a weekly–a new issue comes each and every week. Each issue has multiple articles that tickle my interests and the authors explore their topics in great depth, which means the articles are often long. And did I mention that the magazine comes every week? Add to this the daily life interruptions of work, household chores, raking leaves, and the books I’m trying to finish reading, and what do you get? A backlog of New Yorkers stacked on my desk with subscription card bookmarks holding the places of articles I still want to read.

That is what happened to John McPhee’s wonderful article, “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” The September 14th issue got put into the stack and had to wait patiently for me to attack my backlog and discover this gem by a writer I’ve been reading for years. He has written books on all sorts of topics, and spent many years writing for Time and The New Yorker. Here are just a few of his book titles:

I can’t believe I nearly let this one stay buried in the stack for so long. If, as author McPhee says in this article, “Writing is selection,” then I want to select a few pieces of Mr. McPhee’s wisdom to share with you. My choices are based on connections to my classroom experience. I want to share what I know to be true from my time working with student writers.

1. “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language.” Being a six traits guy (after all, we are the Six Traits Gurus, not the Succulent Tomatoes Gurus or the Spruce Tree Gurus),  I have always suggested to students that, at it’s core, at it’s simplest and most basic, writing is word choice. I didn’t want my students to be stymied by the blank page (or blinking cursor) to the point where they became burdened or overwhelmed with trying to imagine an entire piece before they’d even started. It’s too easy for many students to let that blank page lead them to believe “I don’t have anything to write about.”

The instructional implications for teachers are many. Students need to have seen (through modeling) and experienced all sorts of pre-writing strategies–drawing, webbing, outlining, word caches, story telling, group writing, etc. Students need to have a toolbox of strategies, and yes, it needs to include both search (narrowing) and research skills to help them with any writing form.

Most students don’t have a million words immediately at their disposal (yet) in their speaking/listening/writing vocabularies. This means that building this vocabulary pool, while they’re in school, is a job that begins on day one. That means books, lots and lots of books, and it means reading and being read to. And it will require lots of conversation, meaningful conversation about the books. And it means noticing, sharing, and archiving (word walls, personal dictionaries, etc.) new and interesting word discoveries, then finding ways to use them in everyday speech.

Knowing they have a toolbox of strategies to dig into and that their vocabularies, their pools of word choices, are growing daily  will give them the confidence to be ready to choose that first word and set their writing in motion.

2. “Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in–if not, it stays out. Being able to “keep going” depends a great deal on the pre-writing work done by students, their understanding of the purpose of their writing, and an awareness of their audience for a particular piece.

I do appreciate his criterion, “If something interests you, it goes in…,” but I would add an audience/reader awareness proviso. If it interests you, it goes in, but now you have to write it so it interests your readers. This is where knowing both your purpose and your audience becomes important. If I am an expert on plumbing and I’m writing a technical manual for journeyman plumbers, I know my audience will want all the details I can provide, using all the plumber-ese jargon I know. You’re writing for experienced plumbers–your interests are most likely their interests. But if I’m the same expert, writing a basic plumbing repair/trouble shooting manual for do-it-yourselfers, all that interests me may be way more than what my audience is looking for.


Author Rinker Buck, in his new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,  devotes more than a chapter delving into covered wagon design, mechanics, and even the physics of load stress. The topic is not only important to a book about pioneers in the 1800’s, it clearly interests the author. And I must say, at least for me, he makes it an incredibly interesting topic to read about. Mr. Buck invited me (the reader) inside his interest, carefully choosing words that informed, entertained, and even motivated me to read on. Wow! Mission accomplished! Here’s a taste:

It was a baby step, and it probably didn’t happen all at once. but, once the bolts or straps connecting the wagon box to the axle were removed, the physics were hugely advantageous. The wagon box now floated free, no longer rigidly bound to the axles…Bump, the harvested corn absorbs the shock. Bump, the cordwood rearranges itself. AT the end of a long day on the wagon seat, a farmer’s butt felt like roadkill. But the running gear and axles were intact. (The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. 2015. New York: Simon & Schuster. Page 69.)

3. “Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material–that much and no more. How many times have you been asked by a student in your writing classroom, How long does it have be? If you’ve heard it enough times, you probably have an answer ready to go. My answer was a always a question–I don’t know. How long is your idea? I wasn’t ever trying to be being glib or sarcastic. If I answered “500 words,” or “five paragraphs, or “two pages” those limits might not have had any relation to what the student wanted to share about an experience or had uncovered about a topic. I never wanted students to find themselves counting words, pages, or paragraphs to determine the end of their piece. I also know that when you know your students well, it’s important to know when to push particular students beyond their writing comfort zones or minimalist tendencies. So, for some students and for certain types of writing, I would stretch my usual response to the “How long?” question–I don’t know. How long is your idea? And for this piece, I really think that it will take more than five sentences/one paragraph/ one page to share your thinking or all that you know.

Helping students make this stretch, then, means going back to their toolbox of skills and strategies, making sure they know both how to narrow and expand a topic and do the necessary research or reflection to become an “expert” on their chosen topic. That way the amount of “selected material” they amass will be enough to drive their writing to it’s natural wrap-up point.

4. “From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.

“…I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”

(The underlining is mine, for emphasis.) I suppose that some would say that the process of “deciding what goes into” a piece of writing and “deciding what to leave out” is really the same process–different sides of the same coin, perhaps. I just think it’s important with student writers to make it an extremely thoughtful process, where the writer is fully aware of the criteria filters they’re using as each decision is made. If I want to write about how shark behavior is misunderstood by humans, and I’ve done my research like Mr. McPhee suggests in the article by gathering “say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use,” I’m going to have some decisions about which “stuff” makes the final cut. I may even decide that some of my “stuff” needs further exploring before making that decision.With my audience and purpose firmly in mind, I’ll need to do some sorting. Here are a few examples of some of the “shark behavior is misunderstood by humans” stuff I uncovered. See which bits you might keep, toss, or mark for further exploration. What do you think should be your filters–on topic/off topic, common knowledge/”new” information, etc.?

___ Sharks live in the ocean.

___ Sharks have many teeth.

___ In Hawaii, many believe in amakua, ancestors/family members who have died and come back in another form. Sharks are often revered as amakua.

___ Goldfish are believed to have an attention span of about nine seconds.

What could happen to readers if I included too much “common” knowledge, stuff that readers most likely already know?

imgres-5       imgres-6

Author Barry Lopez, spoke recently at Wordstock, Portland, Oregon’s literary festival. As reported in the November 8, 2015 Oregonian, “He (Lopez) described thinking as he wrote Arctic Dreams that readers didn’t need to be told the region is beautiful–they know that–but that if he could describe precisely what he had seen and felt, ‘put my right hand in the small of that person’s back and show them that,’ then he could open that world to them.” In the classroom, helping students to “describe precisely” (ideas, word choice) what each of them has “seen and felt” (voice) is at the core of effective trait-based writing instruction.


5. A Tower of Giraffes: Animal Bunches by Anna Wright. 2015. Watertown: Charlesbridge. This picture book is not mentioned in The New Yorker article by John McPhee, but I want to mention it now for use in the classroom–any classroom. The book begins by informing readers about collective nouns. A definition is offered–“a term that describes a group of individuals (e.g., troop, gaggle, flock).” What follows is a selection of examples of collective nouns from the animal kingdom–A Herd of Elephants, A Drove of Pigs, etc., accompanied by a 3-4 sentence explanation of the specific collective noun in question and a distinctive, artful illustration.

The book’s format is perfect for imitation–asking students to “research” a favorite animal’s collective noun, “scooping up” more information than what they will need, making decisions about what to keep and what to leave out, before choosing the first word to begin their own writing.

It’s a fantastic book to emphasize and practice, at the student writer level, the wisdom of a professional writer.


Coming up on Gurus . . .


Happy holidays to you and your families! We will be back in January,2016–wow, another year zoomed by! Vicki has been traveling and I’ve been back in the classroom as an occasional substitute teacher, and of course, we’ve been reading, so we’ll have lots to share in the new year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter–@VickoriaSpandel, @jeffhicks156. And remember . . . to set up your very own writing workshop or a fun classroom demo involving your own students, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom. 2014. Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

Ages: Aimed at first through fourth, though the book could be used with older students as a springboard for research and a model for writing

Special Features: A detailed glossary with one-paragraph entries focused on each featured animal.


Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look The Way They Do. 2015. Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

Ages: Aimed at first through fourth, though the book could be used with older students as a springboard for research and a model for writing

Special Features: A visual glossary of each featured “creature”—scaled silhouettes, wild population range maps, diet information.


About the Authors: I hope you are already familiar with both the many books by Steve Jenkins (just Steve) and his collaborations with Robin Page. Here are just a few titles to remind you or possibly introduce you to this amazing team of authors and illustrators.

imgres-4 imgres-5 images-3 images-2

For more information about their work, be sure to visit them at

Summary—How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom

If you are familiar with Steve and Robin’s books, then you know they love animals of all kinds—ALL KINDS—not just the familiar or the friendly or the cute and cuddly. They embrace the weird, spiny, slimy fringe dwellers of the animal kingdom, as well. And they love to get up close and personal with their subjects—zooming in on beaks, tails, feet, movement, habits, habitat, food, and so on. And, they love to help readers understand the fascinating ways these animals solve the day-to-day survival problems they face—scrounging a meal, avoiding becoming a meal, finding/building homes, the ins and outs of dating (or just getting yourself noticed) in the animal world. All by itself, the title of this book is enough to entice readers to check it out. Who wouldn’t want to know how to swallow a pig? Once inside, this book speaks directly to “you,” the reader, offering clear, step-by-step directions, from the animal experts themselves, on some pretty important survival skills. The animals are the teachers, guiding “you” through each phase of, say, building a dam like a beaver, spinning a web like a barn spider, or defending yourself like an armadillo. The animal “voices” are direct, sincere, and knowledgeable, while injecting a bit of humor to connect their behaviors to the human world. In the section on “How to Woo a Ewe Like a Mountain Sheep,” which involves a bit of head bashing, step #5 advises the reader to “Take a break. If your skull is as thick as a mountain sheep’s, you won’t suffer any permanent damage. And if the other guy backs down, you have a new girlfriend.” And, as in all Steve Jenkins books, the cut and torn paper collage art is both accurate and evocative, drawing readers into each animal’s world, and leading them through each step.

Summary—Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do

This book helps to answer the classic younger child/student (or perpetually curious) question, “Why?” While it doesn’t provide the definitive responses to any/all “Why?” questions that may arise, it does help with some, especially those that pertain to the interesting physical features of the amazing assortment of animals included in this book. The authors have included the familiar—giraffe, hamster, panda—and some representatives from the fringe dwellers of the animal kingdom I spoke of in the last summary—babirusa, axolotl, thorny devil, blobfish. Rather than talk about the animals behind their backs, the authors have gone right to the source, posing the kind of direct, in your face questions (that kids are known to ask) directly to the animals themselves. Each question is asked politely using an (almost) advice column letter format—Dear ____, allowing the animals being questioned to respond directly. Their short, specific answers guide readers to an understanding of the “function” behind the “form.” There’s an important reason why each animal looks or is equipped a certain way. Here’s an example (image is NOT from the book):

Dear mole rat:                                   

Have you ever

thought about getting braces?


Not really. I dig tunnels through the earth with my teeth. Fortunately they are ouside my lips, so I can burrow without getting dirt in my mouth.

The illustrations are large and each creature’s eyes are leveled right at the reader—you can’t look away! They are personal, not confrontational. Face to face interaction is important when asking questions about appearances. It’s about curiosity and understanding, not making fun.

Note: I’ve paired these books together for review purposes. I’m not suggesting that you must use them together, though you easily could. For me, they are clearly connected by their science related content, as instructional models for nurturing student understanding of the trait of voice, and by the kinds of writing they might be used to launch with your students.

In the following instructional suggestions and commentary, I’ll refer to How to Swallow a Pig as HTSAP, and Creature Features as CF.

In the Classroom: How to Swallow a Pig

1. Reading. As we always suggest, read the book(s) more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. You will want to be confident about pronouncing the names of any animals that may be new to you. A document camera will help students really explore the book’s artwork, but an up close reading circle will work, especially for the first read through.

Note: In my mind, both HTWAP and CF are the kinds of books I want to use as launch pads for student writing. Because of that, I would be selective and limit what I shared with students from each book. If I want students to imitate or emulate the “Step-by-step/How-to” writing in HTWAP, or the “Advice column/letter” writing format in CF, I need to be careful not to over share examples from the book. In my experience, it’s easier for student writers to generate their own ideas if they have not been inundated with example after example. I think in some students’ minds, seeing and hearing all the examples from the book closes the door on the possibility of other ideas. Yes, examples and exemplars are important. I’m just suggesting that you select a few examples to share from the book as a way to get students excited about coming up with their own ideas. I really hope this makes sense.


2. Anticipatory Set. (Terminology flashback/tip-of-the-hat to Madeline Hunter’s Instructional Theory Into Practice—ITIP! This was a big deal in the early eighties when I first became a teacher.) (You could also call this section Activating Prior Knowledge.) I am doing some substitute teaching this year, mostly at my neighborhood elementary school. I recently subbed in a fifth grade class and brought HTSAP with me. In this classroom, the students are seated in groups of four or five. I handed a blank sheet of paper to each group and had them quickly decide who would be group recorder and who would be group spokesperson. (These students are used to working in groups with each student taking on a role.) I asked them to lean in and brainstorm collectively about crows, a very common bird in our part of the world. The recorder’s job was to write down the group’s ideas as quickly as they could. We then pooled the knowledge of the class by having spokespersons share while I recorded on the white board. This group knew quite a bit, including the fact that crows are highly intelligent, and that a group of crows is called a “murder,” as in “a murder of crows.” We chewed on this information a bit and then jumped into the activity. I posed this to the group: “OK—each of you is now a crow—a very hungry crow. You have found a hazelnut, and you want to eat it. Using what you know about crows and all your crow capabilities, how are you—remember, you’re a crow—going to crack open that hazelnut?” I asked them to think about their plan, drawing pictures if necessary, and then turn their plan into step-by-step directions that another crow/person could follow. Their steps needed to be numbered and described using clear sentences. By the way, we established the premise that crows lacked either the beak or talon strength to crack this tough nut.

I gave them a pretty tight time frame to work, emphasizing that this was an exercise/quick-write/think/write to get them warmed up. We did some quick sharing and comparing of their nut-cracking ideas and then jumped right into the book’s passage, “How to Crack a Nut Like a Crow.” (You’ll need to read the book for the full story, but let’s say that dropping the nut from a high vantage point was a common theme in the students’ writing, but the book takes that idea to another level, showing just how smart crows are.) The students were quite impressed with the ingenuity of the crows’ process outlined in the book. They were also pleased that their own ideas, without the benefit of research, were so closely connected to what the book described.

3. Layout/Verbs/Colons/Voice. Before sharing any more from the book, I think it’s important to have students notice some important choices the writers made in the book’s creation. This is especially important if you are going to use the book as a model for student writing.

Layout—Help your students to notice how each How-to entry is put together. They begin with a title, How to (Hunt, Build, Sew, etc.) Like a (animal’s name), and 3-5 sentences introducing the animal and focusing readers on its specific survival skill. The How-to steps are numbered and “headlined” with a short, direct, command phrase highlighting the step’s action. These headlines are followed by 2-3 detail sentences offering important suggestions, cautions, and bits of critical information to help clarify the intentions of each command to readers. Here’s an example with just the first step included:

(BTW–the image is NOT from the book.)


How to Sew Like a Tailorbird

The tailorbird gets its name from the ingenious way it makes its nest. A female tailorbird constructs the nest, but her male companion may help her collect material for it. Here’s how it’s done:

1) Choose a leaf.

You’ll need a large green leaf. It’s best to choose one in a safe, out-of-the-way spot.

One crucial part of the layout is the blending of text with art/illustrations. Each How-to carefully blends text and art, providing both a visual set of directions and support for important (and potentially new) vocabulary.

Verbs—Action words are in the spotlight in these How-to pieces. This makes perfect sense, of course, because the purpose of this type of writing is to demonstrate how to do something! Strong, active verbs abound in this book—wrap, rub, woo, collect, mimic, spin, organize, snip, lunge, hunker, and so on. Specific action descriptors are critical in How-to writing. “Get some sticks…, make a nest…, put the parts together…” These kinds of vague verbs will only lead to confusion for readers.

Colons—No, I’m not talking about intestines! Punctuation is my point! Make sure students notice how colons have been used to end many of the introductory paragraphs and segue into the numbered steps. The colon can be a mysterious bit of punctuation for students, so I like to point them out whenever I can.

Voice—This is not the easiest of concepts for younger student writers to grasp. That is why I think of myself as a voice nurturer more than a voice teacher. The writing in this book is informational but not encyclopedic. The authors have not simply listed all they know about an animal’s specific survival skill; they’ve given us more than just the cold, hard facts. As readers, we feel confidence in the writers because of their choices—as experts, they’ve made the decision about what to include (and what to leave out) and how to help us focus on what is most important. We can tell they know what they’re talking about, and they are speaking right to us—“Rear up on your hind legs…Hover in the water with your arms trailing behind you…” That’s us—the reader—they’re telling what to do, and we feel connected to both the authors and the animals. When readers feel the presence of a person behind the words, especially important in informational writing, it’s easier to be more engaged with the writer’s content. That’s voice!

4. Research and Imitate. It’s time to share a bit more of the book, but as I suggested, not the entire book—yet. Now that they have a taste for what the book is about, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to try their hands at imitating the format. That means they’ll need to select their own animal to research. The focus would be on survival skills—what does a particular animal do well, or do what no other animal does, to find food, avoid being eaten, create a home, get noticed by a potential mate? Students will need to do enough research to become an “expert” on their chosen animal’s skill. The book’s format begins with a brief introductory paragraph about the animal, giving readers a bit of background/context specific to their animal’s skill. What can you say about your animal in only a few sentences to help the reader zoom in? Next up is the How-to part–breaking down the steps the animal takes to perform this skill. Show students one of the entries you shared to remind them (as described in #3 above) about the headlines, follow-up sentences, descriptive verbs, voice—speak directly to your readers—you are the animal now, teaching your amazing skill. And don’t forget the illustrations. Students could create their own drawings or select images found in their research.

5.Write Your Own Glossary Entry. This book includes a wonderful glossary on each featured animal. Students could follow up their How-to pieces by writing a one-paragraph glossary entry for their animal. These are not full-blown “reports.” As “experts,” they would need to decide what else do curious readers need to know? Take a look, as a class, at one or two of the book’s glossary paragraphs. What types of information did the writers decide to share—physical characteristics/dimensions, habitat specifics, predators/prey, etc.?

6.What’s your “survival” skill? I think it would be fun to ask students to create a How-to piece focusing on a strength of their own—what is one of their “survival” skills? This is where you could write with your students, modeling the reflective self-talk necessary to generate an idea. It’s not about being the best at something; it’s about what you do well to “survive.” It could be something you cook—How to roast a golden brown marshmallow like Mr. Hicks, How to load the dishwasher like Mr. Hicks, etc.

7. Behind the Scenes—How this book was made. There is a wonderful “note” from Steve Jenkins on the page for How to Swallow a Pig about the process behind creating this book. It includes the start—research and sketching, adding the words, the art from sketch to final piece, layout choices, printing the pages, and putting together the final book. It’s really his How-to about his special skill.

imgres-6“That’s right—I’m a blobfish!”

images-4“I’m a babirusa!”

In the Classroom: Creature Features

1. Reading/Sharing. Rather than repeat myself, refer to section #1 above, including my suggestions about sharing only parts of the book if you’re going to use it as a springboard for student writing. This is the kind of book that you could “share” all the way through by only showing the pictures, giving students a chance to stare these creatures in their strange faces. You could even ask them to take “notes,” keeping track of what they notice first about each creature’s face.

2. Organizational Structure—Advice Column “Letter.” This book is all about looks, specifically the strange (at least to us) physical features of creatures found in the animal kingdom—like the blobfish and the babirusa pictured above. The fact is, though we humans may laugh, cringe, look away, or even make fun of the way some animals look, these creatures’ features have a purpose directly connected to the animals’ survival. Here’s what one of the passages looks like. (The image is NOT from the book.)

Dear mandrill:

Why is your nose so colorful?


My bright red and blue nose tell other mandrills that I’m a full-grown male monkey, so they’d better not mess with me. My rear end is pretty colorful too, but I’d rather not talk about that.

The opportunity for student imitation (of the format, not mandrills) is pretty obvious. I would suggest dipping into students’ prior knowledge about the letter format. What do they know about greetings? What do they know about closings? (Even though the book’s “letters” aren’t closed and signed, I would want students to include these in their imitations to add a personal touch) Why do we write letters? Where can you find “advice” letters? (It would be helpful to provide students with a couple examples.)

At this point, students could do some research on a strange looking creature of their own choosing. Their choices don’t have to be creatures from the farthest corners of the world. They might choose a familiar animal—e.g. a lion—to ask about a distinctive feature—why do you have such a furry mane? Their choices don’t have to be limited to the animal kingdom—they could choose an insect or even a strange plant. This is about the research—posing a “why” question, and becoming and becoming enough of an expert to answer the “why” question.

I would ask my student writers to make two alterations to the book’s format. I think the students need to both close and “sign” their letters. This may mean doing a bit of brainstorming about polite ways to close a letter that asks such a personal question—Sincerely, Yours truly, Appreciatively, etc. It’s up to you if you want your students to try the traditional, anonymous method of finishing off advice letters—Yours truly, Panda Lover, Sincerely, Manely Curious from Maine, etc. In turn, I suggest the responses from the animals be written in letter form, complete with greeting—Dear Manely Curious from Maine—and closing—Respectfully, The King of the Jungle, etc.

One other twist would be to have the animals write to the students. What kinds of questions would animals have about us—what we look like or what we wear. Students would need to ask questions of themselves—Why do I wear glasses? Why do I like to wear a hat? Why do you wear shoes? This would give a student who wears glasses, for example, an opportunity to answer the question they’ve probably been asked before, “Why do you have what looks like an extra set of eyes?”

3. Voice/Responding to “Why?”Letter writing is a great format to be able to talk about and emphasize voice. Letters are often personal communication between two people who know each other well. In this case, students are writing to (and from) animals “strangers.” The questions being asked are about looks and need to be asked respectfully. The responses need to be respectful, as well as honest and informative. Students need to make sure they are answering (completely) the question being asked. “Why” questions are different than “what” or “how” questions. “Why” questions require clear, detailed explanations/reasons. “Because” is not an informative answer. (Unless you’re an exasperated parent of a teenager and reasonable, rational explanations aren’t working.)

4. Social Skills.The questions and responses in this book offer a chance to discuss the natural curiosity humans have about other humans and what you do when you have questions about the way someone looks, speaks, dresses, or behaves. Is it OK to stare? Is it OK to point and speak—“You have a big nose!” Is it OK to blurt out a question—“Why do you have a scarf covering your head?”

You and your students could do some role-playing, taking turns being one of the animals from the book or the questioner. The blobfish, pictured above, is a pretty strange looking creature. But if you were a blobfish, how would you feel being asked about your looks, especially if someone isn’t respectful. What is the best way to handle finding answers to our curiosity inspired questions?

5. Behind the Scenes—How this book was made. Just like with HTSAP, there is a wonderful “note” from Steve Jenkins on the page for Creature Features about the process behind creating this book. It includes the start—research and sketching, adding the words, the art from sketch to final piece, layout choices, printing the pages, and putting together the final book.

6. Illustrations—Cut/Torn Paper Collages. I’m not an artist or an expert on student art projects, but I have done cut/torn paper collage pieces with students. Remember, it’s about the process not the beauty of the final products. I always kept a scrap paper box in my room for bits and bobs of paper—construction, wrapping, wall, tissue, etc. Having lots of textures and colors does make this “easier” and more fun. I just think it would be important for students to try Steve’s process to gain that “insider’s” level of appreciation for all the effort behind the stunning final products.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

IMG_2454 (1)Coming up next, Jeff will offer a short reflection (with classroom suggestions) on the September 14, 2015, New Yorker article by writer John McPhee, “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” Student writers often think more in terms of “What do I want to write about and what should I say?” Author McPhee offers a different perspective for writers, young and otherwise, working on their craft.

World traveler Vicki should be back on the continent soon, and I’m sure she’s been reading a great book or two that she will want to share with you.

Oh my goodness—it’s November! We hope your year is off to a great start and running smoothly. And we hope you are or will be a regular visitor here at Gurus throughout the school year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.



In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to what works in the ELA Classroom. 2015. Written by Kelly Gallagher. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. 238 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource book

Focus: Discussion, lessons/classroom practice centered on “Three key “lessons” for educators/classroom teachers regarding literacy and the CCSS:

Lesson 1: Avoid falling in love with these standards. They won’t be here forever.

Lesson 2: Recognize that the standards by themselves are necessary but insufficient.

Lesson 3: Remember that good teaching is not about ‘covering’ a new list of standards; good teaching is grounded in practices proven to sharpen our students’ literacy skills.” (Page 3)

Special features: Many samples of student work and teacher modeling specific to strategies and lessons being addressed, Appendix A—Tracking Your Writing Chart, Appendix B—Conversation Chart, detailed References Section



This summer, after reading Kelly Gallagher’s book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop led by Mr. Gallagher, right here in Beaverton, Oregon! It was very intimate: Kelly Gallagher, myself, and about one hundred middle and high school teachers from the Beaverton School District. (I went to school in Beaverton, taught here for 18 years, am married to an amazing teacher who just began her 35th year in the classroom in the BSD, served for ten years as an elected volunteer on the Beaverton School Board, and am about to start substitute teaching now that I am no longer on the Board.) He came to our District to share his insights and ideas about reading, writing, and speaking in light of the strengths and inherent shortcomings of the CCSS, and to inspire teachers about to begin a new year in the classroom. Not only is Kelly a confident, skilled, experienced presenter, he is also a confident, skilled, experienced teacher. Kelly has both “professional development presenter cred”—he is the author of Reading Reasons, Deeper Reading, Teaching Adolesent Writers, Readicide, and Write Like This, and absolutely stellar “teacher cred”—thirty years in a variety of middle, high, and college level classroom settings. And he is currently teaching high school students in Anaheim, California! From my experience as both a teacher and presenter, nothing resonates with audiences of teachers like the truths–words, stories, and knowledge—spoken by someone who has made the life altering choice to be the responsible adult in a room full of students on a daily basis, who understands and cares about the personal and learning lives of his students, and who clearly loves doing it. Mr. Gallagher, the author, speaks directly to readers with the same passion and expertise he brings to his workshops. My goals as a presenter are to energize teachers and to arm them with real life classroom strategies and practices, not simply “activities,” to help them help their students become more confident, willing writers. On this day, Kelly accomplished both. Here’s a short summary, followed by a sample of this book’s big ideas and strategies.


“Let’s step away from the politics and madness that have accompanied yet another new educational movement. Let’s step away from the pendulum that has swung once again. Let’s step away from teaching to another series of tests that narrow our instruction. Instead, let’s direct our focus on what we know works when it come to teaching students how to read, write, listen, and speak. Let’s focus on what is in the best interest of students. “ (Page 13)

Mr. Gallagher’s book is not an anti-CCSS manifesto. But it does ring, loudly, the literacy-skills alarm bell to call attention to the dangers of narrowly focusing instructional efforts on the goal of “checking off” this new set of standards. The author’s rallying cry is that “…generally, students are not getting enough writing practice in our schools.” (Page 7) This book, then, is all about pumping up the volume of writing and reading—experiences and instruction—for students. The author offers teachers a mindset and specific, proven strategies to “fit” the standards into their writing instruction rather than the other way around. “Writing instruction should be a non-negotiable core value in any classroom…What does it matter if teachers spring through all the standards if at the end of the year their students still cannot write well?”

(Page 7) The book’s chapters alternate between discussions of the “core values behind the teaching” of reading, writing, speaking, and what the author feels the CCSS for literacy “get right” for each of these areas, followed by a chapter focusing on what Mr. Gallagher feels the CCSS “get wrong,” and what teachers can do (with descriptions of specific strategies/lessons) in their classrooms to address their students’ literacy needs and “stay true to what works.”

The following are just a sampling of the MANY highlights of this book. I’m a note taker when I read, and when I’m a workshop participant. It’s how I engage in, process, and mentally sift through incoming information. These highlights are from my notes, and are actually the highlights of the highlights, if that’s not too confusing. Hopefully, these morsels will pique your interest in reading Kelly’s book.)

Selected highlights from In the Best Interest of Students (With a heavier emphasis on Mr. Gallagher’s ideas about writing instruction)

1. Why Read?

“It doesn’t matter how good the anchor reading standards are if our student’s don’t read. It doesn’t matter how much effort teachers put into teaching the anchor reading standards if our student’s don’t read. And if we don’t create environments where our students are reading lots of books, they will never become the kinds of readers we want them to be.” (Page 55) If you’re a true reader, you may not understand how/why this question even needs asking. As an author, Kelly Gallagher has probed the depths of this question in at least two of his previous books. As a teacher, Kelly Gallagher understands the need to have answers at the ready. He provides his students with at least ten excellent responses, backed up by structures, practices, and strategies that take them beyond the realm of mere sound bites or t-shirt memes, to this foundational question. Here are just a few:

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

(Check out the entire list—infographic form—under instructional materials in the Resources section at

2. Seventeen Word Summaries, Window Quotes, Poetry Line Breaks, “Reading” Photographs and Art

In chapter two, the author focuses on what he sees as the strengths of the first nine anchor standards for ELA: Key Ideas and Details–standards 1-3, Craft and Structure—standards 4-6, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas—standards 7-9. Since each of these groups has a distinct reading focus, Mr. Gallagher turns the category headings into “essential” questions centered on this focus: Standards 1-3—What does the text say? Standards 4-6—What does the text do? Standards 7-9—What does the text mean?

What does the text say? Literal understanding is where deeper reading begins. Mr. Gallagher wants his students to demonstrate that they know what’s going on in a text by being able to retell what’s happening. Here are a couple of the summarizing activities he uses with to students to “introduce and sharpen their summary skills.”

17-word summaries (What does the text say?)

Mr. Gallagher wanted to know if his students were understanding what was happening in the first chapter of Lord of the Flies, before asking them to read further independently. He asked a student to select a number between ten and twenty—she landed on seventeen. Ta-da! Students were then instructed to write seventeen—exactly, no more or less—word summaries of chapter one. Here are two samples (Page 18):

Because of a plane crash, a group of kids are stranded on an island with no adults. (Miguel)

A plane crashes on an island; the kids will have to learn how to survive without groups. (Jessica)

I love this practice. My own students used to struggle with summarizing, a skill I believe to be an important one. My variation on this was to ask students to imitate the arts and entertainment section of our newspaper where one-sentence movie summaries could be found. Summarizing forces writers to narrow their focus from a retelling of the entire movie (what we called an all-ary”) to a carefully constructed single sentence overview (what we referred to as a some-ary”). By limiting the number of words to seventeen, writers are forced to carefully consider each word chosen, along with the sentence’s structure and appropriate punctuation. (Notice the use of a semicolon in one of the examples.) These short summaries become useful formative assessment tools (imagine using this practice as an “exit ticket”) for teachers—they can be read easily/quickly, yet provide a clear picture of levels of student understanding to inform your instruction.


Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

The photo above is one I took of the text from a National Geographic article about Antartica (September 2013). Notice the “window quote,” a portion of the text highlighted—larger, red letters—in a “window.” “Window quotes” are used to attract/focus reader’s attention on a particularly interesting moment or important big idea in the piece of writing. Kelly’s practice involves asking students to choose their own quote from an article (he asks students to read—every Monday—an article he has selected (See Article of the Week, AoW, in the Resources section at I have also tried this with student writers, asking them to select a window quote from a piece they are writing, pushing them to carefully read/reread their writing looking for sentences that will interest and inform their readers.

A Writer’s Moves (What does the text do?)

Teaching your students to “read like writers and write like readers” is not a new idea, but it is directly connected to addressing the Craft and Structure standards 4-6. More importantly, helping students to “read like writers” is about them learning to recognize a writer’s “moves”—the techniques and conscious choices writers make—as a first step to learning, developing, imitating, utilizing these moves in their own writing. Asking students to identify a writer’s main idea or find the evidence used to support it will help you know if they understand what the writing is “saying.” By asking students what “moves” the writer makes or what makes a piece of writing particularly effective, helps move students closer to “reading like a writer.” Try it out for yourself.

imgres-7Here is a passage from Gary Paulsen’s (now) classic book, Hatchet. In the first few pages, readers meet thirteen-year-old Brian, a passenger in a small plane, on his way to spend the summer with his father at his worksite in Canada. During the flight, Brian is at first lost in thoughts of his parents break up. (Spoiler alert! I say “at first” because the pilot is about to have a heart attack!) Read the passage, then try answering the questions that follow to get a taste of this practice.

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.


It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers—God , he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart—and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life—all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, an ugly breaking word.



No, not secrets so much as just the Secret. What he knew and had not told anybody, what he knew about his mother that had caused the divorce, what he knew, what he knew—the Secret.


The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

What makes this an effective piece of writing? (Even though you know there is a lot more to come.)

Those of you who are fans of Gary Paulsen will notice a few of his signature “moves”—the really short “sentences,” the repetition of phrasing, the use of longer sentence fragments, etc.

“Reading” photographs and paintings: Recognizing Audience and Purpose (What does the text mean?)

To help “move students beyond surface-level thinking” Mr. Gallagher asks his students to analyze photographs, like the one below. In the photo, Hazel Bryan Massery is shown shouting at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. Will Counts, a 26-year-old journalist took the photo in 1957, nine African American students entered Little Rock Central High School following Supreme Court decisions focused on integration. Treating the photograph as a “text,” he asks students to think about what the text “says” to them, prior to any discussion of background information: What do you notice? (See STG “What Do You Notice?” May 11, 2014) He then moves the questioning to a different level, after providing some historical context of both the period and the photo: What is the photographer’s “claim” in this photo? What was the photographer’s purpose in taking the photo? Who did the photographer want to see his photo? (Audience)


The author also has students apply their photograph “reading” skills to paintings. Below is one of my favorite paintings—you could select any painting you want. (I suggest you Google it by title and look at carefully in a larger format.) In a classroom, I would want to project this to give students the opportunity for up close viewing/”reading. Start students off with the same progression of questioning—What do you notice? What “moves” does the artist make? Light/color? Perspective? Sense of scale—larger/smaller figures? Focus of the painting? Help the students out with some background about the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus—dad gives son wings held together with wax. Dad warns son not to fly too close to the son. The warning is ignored. Wings melt and Icarus falls into the sea and drowns. Now, move the questioning toward meaning—What is the artist’s claim? What is the artist trying to tell us about the world of myth and the real world where farmers have to plow their fields?


“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A specific suggestion when using this painting is to introduce W.H. Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, ( arts/) to help move their “reading” even deeper into meaning—What does the poet have to say about the painting? What “moves” does the poet make?

 3.Concern #1–Where the Reading Standards May Fall Short: Confining Students to the “Four Corners of the Text.”

When it comes to reading, I have always wanted my students to be able to “Read the lines” (Literal understanding), “Read between the lines” (Inferential understanding), and, importantly, “Read beyond the lines” (Evaluative understanding). I’m not sure how students will be able to make the leap to evaluative comprehension—making connections to their lives, the world, other reading, other experiences—without moving well beyond the “four corners of the text.” Here are a few of Kelly’s thoughts on this topic:

“The very reason I want my students to read core works of literature and nonfiction is so that they can eventually get outside the four corners of the text…Books worthy of study should be rehearsals for the real world.” (Page 50)

“I want my students…to spend as much time as possible applying their newfound thinking toward answering, ‘How does this book make me smarter about today’s world?’” (Page 51)

“If we teach students to think only inside the four corners of the text, we are telling them what not to think.” (Page 51)

4. Concern #4–Where the Reading Standards May Fall Short: There are NO reading targets.

“If your students are not reading a lot, it doesn’t matter what skills you teach them. Volume matters.” (Page 55)

On top of any books a student may be assigned to read in class, Mr. Gallagher sets a goal for his students to “read one self-selected book a month.” He has them track their reading on a “My 10” chart. (To download a copy of My 10 chart, look under Instructional Materials in the Resources section at As students complete a book, they meet with him and he signs off on their chart. Though he doesn’t provide a script for these brief conferences, I can imagine he has modeled the questions (What does the author say, do, mean? Personal reflections?) he might be asking to generate the conversation. I always asked my students to keep a weekly record of their reading—title of book, number of pages read, time spent, and where/when reading occurred. I wanted them to both create the conditions for a reading habit and be mindful of maintaining their habit. I can also imagine asking students to tout their choices in brief “book talks” as a way of sharing great choices with their classmates. Maintaining a record of your own reading to share with students and doing “book talks” about your choices is a an easy way to model and motivate. In the workshop I attended, Kelly quoted from his friend, author/educator Penny Kittle, “If they’re not reading and writing with you, they’re not reading and writing without you.”

For some help in building a classroom/professional/personal library, see Kelly’s Lists, in the Resources section at

And of course, your pals here at STG have been recommending excellent books for teachers and students since 2010! Check out our archives. No dust!

5.Strength #3—The Writing Standards Value Process Writing

Imagine that! Writing process! Pre-writing, Sharing, Drafting, Sharing, Revision, Sharing, Editing, Sharing! Talk about “Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom!” (Remember—from the title of the book?) Mr. Gallagher reveals that, even for him, many of his students begin their time in his classroom as “…one-and-done writers. They write one draft; they are done.” Remind you of any students you might know? “I’m done—what do I do now?” “I like it the way it is.” Or the students that think a final draft is printing a second copy of their first draft. Kelly suggests that the “best way to help students internalize the value of moving beyond one and done is through intensive modeling.” (Page 66) That means providing models (and instruction) at each step of the process. Kelly describes this kind of modeling as “I go, then you go.” Yes, that means the teacher is an active writer, producing models for students. The teacher is the “I” and the students are the “you.” There will be more about using models and modeling coming up.

6.Strengths #4, 5, 6—The Writing Standards Sharpen Our Students’ Narrative, Informative/Explanatory, Argument Writing Skills

These are the “Big Three” writing genres emphasized and valued in the CCSS. Kelly fills chapter 4 with enough writing ideas to both pump up the volume (amount/frequency) of student writing and to “invite students to write longer pieces” in each genre.

Narrative Writing:

Moments That Matter—“Students are asked to consider the moments in their lives that really matter.” (Page 67) Kelly provides lists of his own brainstormed ideas (modeling) and lists of student generated ideas. Here are a few examples (Page 67)—

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

*The end of a friendship                                                *Moving in with my dad

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

And here are a few of the other ideas that Mr. G and his Students brainstormed lists for.

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

From A to B (Discuss how they “got from one place to another”)


After creating their lists, Mr. G models selecting a topic from his list, creates a draft, then leads students to do the same. (“I go then you go.”)

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

“The ability to inform and/or explain is a real-world writing skill I want my students to practice.” (Page 73) Here are just a few of the exercises he has created for his students (Pages 73-85):

Reverse Bucket Lists (the things you never want to do)

Six Things You Should Know About…(Borrowed from a column in ESPN magazine)

Your Birthday in History

Who Made That? (Explanations of how/where common items come from—borrowed from a column in the New             York Times Magazine)

After creating their lists, Mr. G models selecting a topic from his list, creates a draft, then leads students to do the same. (“I go then you go.”)

Argumentative Writing:

This is the type of writing (effective arguments) with the heaviest emphasis in the CCSS. In light of this, Kelly offers five key points of instruction/practice to bear in mind about argumentative writing. You’ll need to read the book for all five, but I want to share one that I have echoed with both students and workshop audiences. (The exclamation points are my addition.)

Key Point 4: Effective arguments do not come packaged in five-paragraph essays!!!

Arguments are not crafted in this way. An argument is much more than a claim followed by three reasons…The lameness of the structure diverts the reader’s attention from the argument itself.” (Page 96) What students need, of course, are strong models where the writer’s “moves” can be first noticed, then analyzed, and finally imitated.

7.Concern #1—Narrative Writing is Required But Undervalued

This is the flip side one of the CCSS strengths described previously. Yes, narrative is one of the big three genres called out in the standards, but it is gradually deemphasized as students move from K-12. Mr. Gallagher wisely suggests, “The best teachers, …doctors, …scientists, …taxi drivers, …and politicians have one thing in common: the ability to connect with people through storytelling. Being able to tell a good story is not a school skill, it is a life skill…” (Page 102) Mr. Gallagher believes that more emphasis should be placed on narrative writing, not less. Here are just a couple of his argument’s headlines:

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

(For more fuel to feed this fire, see STG posts from April 9, 2015, October 1, 2013, March 28, 2013, and April 5, 2012.)

8.Concern #3—There is an artificial separation between writing discourses.

The previous superintendent of my home school district here in Beaverton, Oregon, used to invite a group of recent high school grads to a luncheon during the winter holiday break. He made sure the group included students who were now attending a four year college or university, students enrolled at a community college, and students who were working but not currently enrolled in school. The purpose of the luncheon was similar to an exit interview—he wanted to know if these students felt like their BSD experience had appropriately prepared them for their current world of work or school. As a Board member, I was invited to participate. I asked these students specifically about how the kinds of writing their current situations demanded of them stacked up against their writing experiences as a Beaverton school student. Now, I know this is purely anecdotal “evidence,” but every year we met with students, I heard the same comments (I even checked the journals I kept while on the Board): “I wish we had done more narrative writing in high school.” “Writing in college is really a blend of styles.” “My on the job writing had to be both informative and personal, you know, relating to the people who were our customers.” Mr. Gallagher offers the example of the annual State of the Union address given by the President. In his 2013 address, President Obama told the stories of some of the young people who had died in gun related incidents. He was appealing to the people of the United States to work to change gun laws. Rather than simply supply data or go deep into the technicalities of law, the President included the stories of real people to strengthen the argument inherent in his speech. To help students, Mr. Gallagher offers them a graphic organizer when writing argumentative pieces. It has boxes for the writer’s Claim, Argument, Counter-argument, Response to the counter-argument, and (The Twist) a box for a Story—a personal experience of a person to strengthen the argument. (Page 110)

9. Elevating Students’ Reading and Writing Abilities: Using Models Because Models Matter

Chapter 6 is dedicated to the importance of using models in the instruction of both reading and writing. When it comes to helping elevate student writing, Kelly says, “Before they begin writing, they need to know what the writing task at hand looks like.” (Page 130) That means, of course, providing them with interesting, compelling, engaging examples of explanatory, argumentative, and narrative writing at each stage of the writing process. These examples can come from professional writers, you/the teacher, and also, of course, from classmates—both the best writers in the room and any students willing to offer their writing as models for discussion and feedback.

I want to leave you with two ideas connected to modeling—one from the workshop I attended and one from the book—and pass on warning form Kelly about models and modeling.

Austin’s Butterfly

Mr. Gallagher showed us a video called “Austin’s Butterfly” about the importance of emphasizing writing process and the value of models. The following images are the drafts of a butterfly drawing (a Tiger Swallowtail) done by first grader Austin. The first draft was done without the help of any models. Further drafts show the results of both seeing/studying a photographic model and receiving feedback specific what Austin had done well and what he could work on.

imgres-4 imgres-5


You will find the video of Austin’s Butterfly, featuring Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning, on Youtube or Vimeo.

Modeling in the Revision Stage—Draft A or Draft B?

This classroom strategy is not only a favorite of Kelly’s, it’s also one of mine and something I first learned from my pal, Vicki Spandel. Asking students to compare two different drafts of a piece of writing (or even to compare two pieces of writing on similar topics) is all about getting students to understand what meaningful revision is all about. This isn’t about doing a quick “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This is about finding what is working in a piece of writing—the writer’s “moves”—and determining what is, specifically, not working for readers. In the workshop, Kelly used the acronym R.A.D.A.R.—Replace, Add, Delete, and Re-order—to label the revision decisions this kind of assessment leads writers to make, all for the sake of their idea. For the sake of making sure readers capture the writer’s meaning and feel the writer’s presence in the writing.

Finally, Kelly does offer two modeling caveats worthy of your consideration:

#1—Do not over-model

#2—Recognize the balance between the benefits of modeling and the danger of developing dependency

(Page 137)

I have provided you with a sampling of all the great stuff this book has to offer you and your students. It’s up to you now to find out the whole story.


About the author . . .

I kind of spilled the beans about Kelly in the Background section above. To find out even more, go to or follow him on Twitter, @KellyGToGo.

Coming up on Gurus . . .


Coming up next, I will be sharing two non-fiction picture books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page—Creatures Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do and How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom. You won’t want to miss these, just in case you’ve been wondering why a giraffe’s tongue is purple or you’ve been less than successful at pig swallowing!

As you may have noticed, we’re featuring nonfiction writing (because we know you’re craving information about excellent informational reading for you and your students) this fall, and Vicki will be posting several reviews of incredible new nonfiction books for students throughout the fall.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter–@vickispandel, @jeffhicksSTG. And remember . . . to set up your very own writing workshop or a fun classroom demo involving your own students, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.