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Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now

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Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. 2011. Sandpiper—HMH: Boston.

Genre: Novel

Ages: Grades 6-9

Review by Jeff Hicks

Summary

I know it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the absolute truth. As I read Okay for Now (a National Book Award Finalist), there were many moments where I laughed and/or I cried—out-loud, mirthful laughter and salty, stream down my face tears of sadness or for those moments of celebration when basic human goodness prevailed. In between those moments, I was nervous, scared, amazed, relieved, and always driven to keep reading. Seriously. I’m hoping you recognize Gary D. Schmidt as the author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both Newberry Honor Books and excellent reads on their own. (If his name and work is new to you, Okay for Now is a great place to start.) Okay for Now is described as a “companion book” to The Wednesday Wars—not exactly a sequel or prequel but a chance for Doug Swieteck (a friend of Holling Hoodhood, the main character from The Wednesday Wars), to tell his important story. (Both books are stand-alones, so you don’t have to read one before the other.) The book begins in 1968—Apollo space missions, the Vietnam War, political and social unrest/protest—and Doug’s family is moving from New York City to the “metropolis” of Marysville, a much smaller town in upstate New York. That means leaving friends and his Yankee hero, Joe Pepitone, behind and enrolling in a new school for his eighth grade year. Doug refers to his new home in “stupid” Marysville as “the Dump”—and he carries this attitude with him as he begins to explore his new surroundings. He also carries some heavy emotional baggage—a verbally and physically abusive father, one brother serving in Vietnam, another brother at home who wastes no time before stirring up trouble, his struggles with reading, and a couple rather heavy personal secrets. Doug’s first encounters with Marysville residents are less than cordial, but he manages to befriend Lil Spicer, whose dad owns the local deli. Doug and Lil’s paths continue to intersect at, strangely for Doug, the open-on-Saturdays-only public library. It is here that Doug continues to be pulled each Saturday, for friendship, for the amazing birds of John James Audubon, and for the mission he needs to help him shed some of the baggage clouding his life.

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Inside Your Classroom

  1. Background. For me, the background of this book is my childhood—Doug Swieteck and I grew up in the same time period. Though our family life was very different, the big events and issues of Doug’s time—the Vietnam War, Apollo space missions, baseball (Doug follows the New York Yankees), and the post-British invasion (music, not military)-pre-Woodstock world—are very familiar to me. You and/or your students may know someone who served or is currently serving in the military, in Vietnam, or more recently in Iraq/Afghanistan. This personal connection, with attention to its sensitive nature, could serve as a launching point for preliminary discussions of wartime, its impact on society, and its affect on both those who serve and their families. The Apollo space program is another topic worthy of discussion prior to reading. The missions leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing—Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man…”—were events focused on in school and talked about at home. The book begins with references to the New York Yankees and specifically to two famous players of the time, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark. Do any of your students follow professional baseball (or other sports)? What are their favorite teams? Who are their favorite players? What would it mean to them if they had an opportunity (like Doug does) to meet and play catch with their sports heroes?

(Note: It only takes a quick Internet search to locate information, images, and videos that could provide the necessary front-loading for students. I’ll return to these topics later when I discuss research/writing opportunities. )

  1. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll definitely need to preview this book prior to sharing it with students. Doug’s home life—abusive father, a bullying older brother and another brother who returns physically and emotionally scarred from duty in Vietnam—is something you’ll want to be prepared for before students begin to experience the book. These plot elements, handled honestly and respectfully, are absolutely central to the story and to Doug’s development as a character; they will surely elicit important questions and discussions.                                                  (Note/Warning): It’s important to know that there is a moment later in the book where the extent of physical abuse Doug has suffered at the hands of his father is revealed. It is a bit shocking, but by this time, readers know Doug well and can see that he’ll get through it with the help of his friends and the support of a wonderful teacher. You know your students best—you may decide that it’s not a book for all. I believe that Doug’s story will resonate with your students and with your guidance, the discussions and work will be meaningful.)

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Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of one of John James Audubon’s Birds of America illustrations. (The color example included above, is “The Black-Backed Gull,” Plate CCCLI, introduced in chapter four.) These are also central to the story/author’s message and essential for students to see. A quick Internet search will provide you with color images of these illustrations to project in your classroom. If possible, you could save each image in a folder for student access or provide them with a link to each illustration, posted on your teacher/school website. You could even go old school and display copies of the images on a bulletin board, adding a new image each time a chapter begins.

  1. Illustrations/Organizational structure. As I just described, each chapter of the book opens with one of the illustrations from Audubon’s, Birds of America. Though this is not a “picture book,” these illustrations are both road signs directing readers through the story, and windows into Doug’s way of thinking about the world. Their inclusion serves the important organizational purpose of previewing/reviewing plot elements and mirroring for readers Doug’s growing interest in Audubon’s art and his own drawing. I suggest showing students the illustration that opens chapter one, The Arctic Tern, Plate CCL, and ask them to do a quick write of their response to the image—what they see, feel, imagine, etc. These responses could be shared first with a partner or small group, then with the class. The question, “What in the illustration leads you to this thinking?” will help them find “support” for their ideas by returning to the source—the image—for evidence.

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Doug’s response to The Arctic Tern when he first sees it in the Marysville library gives readers some insight into what he’s feeling about his current life situation in his new town.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

            He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea…His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit…The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.

            This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.

            It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.

            The most beautiful. (Page 19)

How does this compare with your students’ responses? What do they know about Doug so far that might help explain his thinking? Why do you think he is so compelled to attempt to draw the bird? After finishing a chapter, go back to the illustration to connect any additional information they may have gleaned to their previous thinking. You don’t have to have students repeat this entire process for each chapter. They could keep a personal Audubon Bird “journal” to respond, reflect, make predictions, connect the dots of Doug’s life, chart the changes in the way Doug looks at his world, etc. This journal could be used as a resource for a more formal literary analysis focusing on the arc of Doug’s character growth.

  1. Details—“The Stats.” To quote Vicki from her recent post about Sneed Collard’s book, Fire Birds, “Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more.” This is true in both fiction and non-fiction writing. In Okay for Now, the author has created a character, Doug, who is a detail guy. (Which means the author is a detail guy.) Doug pays close attention to the world around him. Whether it’s absorbing baseball statistics and trivia, searching for places to hide his sacred Joe Pepitone jacket from his menacing brother, checking even the slightest facial cue to know what kind of mood his father is in, or the way Audubon has drawn feathers on one of his birds, Doug is a noticer. In his first interaction with Lil Spicer, before he knows her at all, he notices her smile: “She smiled—and it wasn’t the kind of smile that said I love you—and she skipped up the six marble steps toward the marble entrance.” (Page 17) The details the author has Doug notice help readers clearly see and feel the people, places, and happenings in his life. The details invite readers inside the writer’s ideas. As insiders, we want to keep reading, and that’s a good thing. Ask your students to look for examples where they feel invited inside the story, like the one above. Post some of these examples on a bulletin board to remind students to invite their readers inside every time they write. Keep an eye out as you read for moments where Doug gives readers what he calls the stats—you’ll see some examples on pages 14, 49, 104, 168, etc. Here are the stats—things he notices—from the kitchen of one of the people he delivers items from Spicer’s Delicatessen to (yes, he gets a job from Lil’s father).

The floor was white and yellow tile—twenty-four tiles

                        wide, eighteen tiles long.

            One rack with sixteen copper pots and pans hanging over

                        a woodblock table.

            Four yellow stools around the woodblock table.

            Twelve glass cupboards—all white inside. You could

                        have put my mother’s dishes into any one of these

                        and you would have had plenty of room left over.

            And the dishes! All white and yellow. And the glasses!

                        Who knows how many? All matching. Not a sin-

                        gle one chipped. (Page 49)

Precise numbers, colors, specific descriptors, feelings—this almost poetic inventory creates a strong image of this kitchen and how sharply it contrasts with his own. I would have students imitate this form—“the stats”—to practice their own skills as noticers. They could do “the stats” from their class time with you, to create a picture of what their room at home looks like, to review or summarize a chapter from this book, to recount their lunch break, to summarize research, as a form of poetry, etc. It’s all about the details!

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  1. Research. The CCSS have got everyone talking about the balance of “fiction vs. non-fiction” reading. The standards also have us talking about writing—“narrative vs. informational/expository/argument.” The conversation often gets heated, but I’m glad we’re talking, especially about writing. Okay for Now is, of course, a fictional narrative. As I was reading, though, I couldn’t help but connect the fictional people and events to my very real, non-fiction life. And my reader’s brain kept prodding me with questions that required me to delve into the non-fiction information world to find answers. Here are just a few of the things I felt would be worthy of some further reading and “research”:

The Vietnam War

-Soldiers returning home

-PTSD

-Treatment of veterans

-Comparison to World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan

Space Exploration

-Apollo missions

-Landing on the moon

-Manned, unmanned missions

-“The Space Race”

Sports Stars/Heroes

-Joe Pepitone, Horace Clark

-Sports stars as role models

-Sports memorabilia

-Biography

-Compared to today—salaries, television, social media

John James Audubon

-Bird research

-Ornithology

-Etching, watercolor

-Audubon Society

-Endangered Species

-Biography

-Importance of art

Broadway Plays

-New York City

-Adapting novels to plays

-Acting as a profession

-Role of producer

-Stagecraft—sets, lighting, costumes, etc.

Libraries

-Books vs. “electronic” reading

-Importance in communities today vs. years ago

-Funding advocacy

Rights of the Disabled

-Handicap access—ramps, elevators, etc.

Community Activism

-Preserving history, landmarks, traditions

Any one of these ideas (there are many more possibilities) could become, with some questioning/stretching/narrowing/personalizing, a topic for further student reading (non-fiction) and research-based informational writing. Several from this list could become topics turned into written arguments or debate topics—for/against—attempting to inform and persuade readers.

Not to belabor the obvious point, but the reading of quality “fiction” can lead to the reading of quality “non-fiction.” The opposite is also true. We learn anytime we read. And when students are exposed to a variety of models of quality writing—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.—commingled with a variety of writing opportunities, their writing improves.

  1. Impact of the book. “Everyone has a bag of rocks to carry.” I can’t remember who first put this notion inside my head, bit it stuck. I tried to think about this with every student in my class. Sometimes it’s clear what kinds of rocks someone is carrying—learning difficulties, hunger, difficult home lives. Other times, you don’t know the bag’s contents, but you know it’s a heavy load. To paraphrase a bit from Vicki’s Fire Birds post (STG January 26, 2015—be sure to read it!), “Good writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding or appreciation of a topic.” If anything, experiencing this book might help students be more aware of the rocks people are carrying, and to look more compassionately at classmates, family members, and people in general. New York Times op/ed writer Nicholas Kristof has suggested that there is something he calls a “compassion gap” in America and has questioned how we can help develop a greater sense of compassion in our citizens. Meeting Doug Swieteck—his family, friends, mentors, teachers—and his bag of rocks, in the book Okay for Now, is a place to start.

About the author . . .

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For more information about author Gary D. Schmidt and his books, visit http://www.hmhbooks.com/schmidt/

One intriguing (at least to me or anyone with Hicks as a last name) tidbit about Mr. Schmidt is that he was born in Hicksville, New York. Totally amazing, right?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m working on a couple things—a review of Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, and some commentary on Thomas Newkirk’s thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Fire Birds

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests by Sneed B. Collard III. 2015. Bucking Horse Books.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book.

Ages: For readers 8 to 14.

Review by Vicki Spandel

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Summary

Most of us have been taught that wildfires are a bad thing—and that’s true when they threaten homes or lives. In the wilderness, however, wildfires can be an essential part of the natural life cycle. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way.

In this book, readers discover that natural wildfires are anything but a contemporary phenomenon; they have been with us throughout time. And while they can be intensely frightening and destructive, the news is not all bad. Wildfires actually generate life, especially when allowed to follow their natural course. Intervention by humans can create a situation where fire fuels grow and expand so profusely that fire cannot be stopped or contained. Good intentions do not always lead us down the best path.

This book does not endorse allowing any fire to go unchecked if it threatens homes or human lives. But it does help us recognize the benefits that natural occurring fires bring—not only habitat for many types of wild birds, but also fertile soil for regeneration of countless trees and shrubs that create natural, multi-species forests. Naturally occurring fires also clear the forest of underbrush which, if allowed to grow unchecked, presents an unthinkable danger to plants, animals, and any humans happening to reside nearby. It is time, as the author tells us, to update Smokey Bear’s message.

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Inside Your Classroom

1. Background. Is wildfire common in your area? Perhaps some of your students (or you) have witnessed a wildfire, watched media coverage, or even been evacuated. Take time to discuss the frequency and severity of fires in your area, particularly in recent years, inviting students to share experiences of their own. How do your students feel about wildfires prior to experiencing this book? (Note: This can be a sensitive topic for students who have suffered loss as a result of fire, so we recognize your need to pursue this discussion with awareness and caution.)

2. The title: Inference and prediction. A title like Fire Birds could well apply to a sci fi adventure! This is a science book, of course. So where did this title probably come from? What hints does it provide about the likely theme or central message of the book?

3. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing it with students. At just under 50 pages, it is a quick read for an adult, and the combination of fascinating information, enticing illustrations, and strong sense of drama make it an inviting text for young readers who favor nonfiction or have an interest in nature. This book is highly recommended for use with a study group. If you decide to share it with the whole class, a document projector is all but essential since the illustrations are an integral element of the book’s message.

4. Introduction. As the Common Core standards for writing remind us, a good introduction sets the stage for what follows. Share the introduction titled “Inferno!” aloud with students, using a document projector to share the accompanying illustration of a wildfire as you do so. Ask students to listen for words or phrases that catch their attention (notably verbs), and make a class list. You may wish to read the passage more than once to facilitate this. What impression is the author creating with this passage? Is it effective in setting the stage for the discussion to come? Does it capture our attention? How? In particular, notice the final line, a three-word question. Why is this question particularly important? Ask how many of your students have used a question as part of their writing strategy in crafting an introduction.

5. Organizational structure. Check out the Table of Contents. It’s very colorful! Do your students like the format? Notice that although this is not a long book (about 50 heavily illustrated pages, including appended material), it’s broken into an introduction plus five chapters. Does breaking a text up in this way help readers? How? Notice that the chapters are not only numbered, but also have titles. See if your students can use these titles to orally trace the writer’s thinking, point to point, even prior to reading the book. Are their expectations borne out as they read the text?

6. Main idea. What is this author’s main idea or message? Pose this question after sharing Chapter 1—and ask students to summarize the main idea in their own words. Then, revisit the question after getting deeper into the book. Students may not change their minds, but their ability to elaborate on the main idea will likely grow. You might also ask them to listen for a sentence or paragraph they feel sums up the author’s primary message. (Note: Check out the final paragraph on page 30 for one good possibility. Also notice the quotation attributed to Dick Hutto on page 8.)

7. Details. Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more. See how many of these various forms your writers can identify in Fire Birds. Ask how many they use in their own writing. You may want to point out that varied detail enriches writing. No one wants to read text that is all facts, for example. The mind craves variety, and learns more easily when given multiple paths to information. What kinds of details do your students respond to as readers?

8. Format. In addition to chapter titles, author Sneed Collard also makes extensive use of subheads throughout the book. How do these contribute to the organization of the book—and also the sharing of information? To put it another way, do they make the book easier to follow? How? Also notice the boxed information embedded in many of the illustrations. Do these little boxes have something in common? Talk about why the author chose to use this approach rather than simply incorporating this additional information into the regular flow of the text. Is this format effective? Why? Talk about how/when students might use a similar strategy in their own writing.

9. Illustrations. Book designers often say that illustrations and words should complement, not replicate, each other. That is, each should provide information that the other does not. Read the information on page 15 and the first paragraph of page 16 aloud as your students study the photos on page 14. What do we learn from each (illustrations and words) that we do not learn from the other?

10. Research. Many books, including novels, rely on research for authenticity. But nowhere is research more important than in an informational text like this one. Discuss why this matters so much. If the book were based strictly on Collard’s opinion or observations made in his back yard, would it be as convincing? Discuss how and where this author searched for his information. On a scale of 1 to 10, how credible is this research, in your students’ view? (Note that much of the book is based on the work of ornithologist Dick Hutto, described on pages 17 through 19. Students should also be aware that Collard spent extensive time in the field himself, interviewed additional specialists, and also took the photos that illustrate the book. Also point out the extensive additional sources listed in “Digging Deeper,” page 46. Your students may wish to explore some of these resources.)

11. Transitions. Transitions, the CCSS remind us, are vital ways to link ideas in all forms of writing: narrative, argument, and information. In introducing this discussion, see if your students can list 20 transitional words or phrases (however, next, for example, on the other hand, because, nevertheless, and so on). Sneed Collard is an author noted for the strong transitions that make his work so easy to read and follow. Share one or both of the following passages with students and ask them to identify as many transitions as they can—and to discuss how each links ideas: “Home, Sweet Blackened Home,” beginning of Chapter 3, page 21; and “Beetle Bonanza,” page 24. Keep in mind that good transitions are often more than a word long and may occur mid-sentence. Also, there may be more than one transitional phrase within a given sentence. (Note: Permission is granted to print and distribute these pages to your students. They can talk with partners, and identify transitions orally or use highlighters to mark up the text.)

12. Transitional endings. One of the delightful things about a chapter book is that it provides multiple opportunities to consider beginnings and endings. Chapter endings are particularly important because when a reader comes to the end of a chapter, it’s always tempting to find something else to do! No author wants readers to do that! Notice for example the ending to Chapter 2, bottom of page 19: “What he found astonished him.” What is the likely impact of these words on the reader? How does this line provide a transition into Chapter 3?

13. Word choice. Words always matter. In informational writing, though, they can be particularly important because, as we’re reminded in the CCSS, an author must use “domain-specific vocabulary”—what we might call the language of the territory—in order to help us understand a particular topic: in this case, wildfire and its effect on birds’ habitats. This particular book has a special feature—a glossary—to help with word definitions. As you go through the text (and without peeking at the glossary), have students list words they think should be defined. Check your final list against the glossary at the end of the book. Also note how well some terms are defined in context—by how they are used, that is. See, for example, “salvage logging” on page 32.

14. Voice and tone. The Common Core suggests that an informational piece should have an “objective, formal tone,” which some might describe as respectful of the topic or free of personal bias. Does the author achieve that? Identify three or more passages that are good examples of the voice or tone you hear in this book. Brainstorm all the words you can think of that describe these passages: e.g., serious, engaging, thoughtful, humorous, energetic, dramatic, exciting, passionate, reflective. (Note: Reading aloud makes it easier for most students to describe a given text.)

15. Reading graphics. In addition to numerous illustrations, author Sneed Collard includes an important graphic titled “’Hottest’ Fire Birds” on page 25. Ask students to summarize, in a few short lines, the message of this graphic. How does it support the author’s main message?

16. Genre. The author makes a strong case for encouraging us to see wildfires (those that do not threaten human lives or residences) in a positive way. So—should this book be classified as an argument? Or an informational text? Have students write a response, taking a position on this and defending it with examples from the book. (Note: You may wish to access the CCSS definitions to help students make a decision on this.)

17. Crafting an argument. At the close of Chapter 3, page 26, Collard makes a particularly strong statement based on Dick Hutto’s research: “Perhaps humans should stop looking at naturally caused fires as our enemy and start looking at them as an essential part of nature.” Do your students agree? Have them take a position and make an argument for or against the “essential part of nature” position, using information not only from this book, but other sources as well.

18. Impact of the book. Good informational writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding of a topic. What do your students learn from this book? Make a list of new ideas, surprises, or discoveries. Take a moment to re-examine the reactions to wildfires students expressed prior to reading the book. Have their opinions or feelings changed in any way?

19. Conclusion. In a sense, all of Chapter 5 is a conclusion. But the author also offers an expanded concluding statement in the section titled “Still Work to Do,” page 42 and following. How strong is this conclusion? What thoughts or beliefs do your students think the author wants us to take away from this reading experience?

20. Personal research. Ask students to extend their learning by visiting a burn site, interviewing local firefighters, researching the impact of fires in their home state or elsewhere, following up with resources listed under “Digging Deeper,” page 46, or even observing and photographing wild birds in a new burn habitat if there is one close by. Invite them to share their findings.

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Sneed's son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

Sneed’s son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

About the author . . .

Author Sneed B. Collard III graduated with honors in biology from the University of California at Berkeley and earned his masters in scientific instrumentation from U. C. Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 65 books for younger readers, including Animal Dads, Teeth, The Prairie Builders, Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, and Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. To learn more about Sneed or schedule a school or conference visit, please go to his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com or the website of his publishing house, Bucking Horse Books, www.buckinghorsebooks.com

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Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be sharing reviews of some of the best literature to enter his life of late—but he doesn’t want to share titles just yet! They’re a surprise. Jeff always chooses the most readable, memorable books, though, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for those reviews. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Bridging the Gap

A review by Vicki Spandel

Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core by Lesley Roessing. 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. Foreword by Barry Lane.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades 5 through 12, but adaptable for younger or older students

Features: Chapter by chapter list of recommended published memoirs to share aloud with students (Appendix A); a more extended list of published memoirs to explore (Appendix B); reproducible forms, including full-sized charts, from various lessons throughout the book (Appendix D).

Introduction

Memoir! It’s that magical genre with the power to ignite fires within all of us—first, because we get to read about the incredible real lives of fascinating people, and second because we get to write about the people who fascinate us most of all: ourselves.

Have another look at that subtitle: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. You’re probably thinking “Common Core,” and if so, you’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. Far from it. Bridging the Gap is a book aimed at helping students get to the core of who they are. And in so doing, they learn more than you might think about the world around them—and about writing.

Lesley Roessing’s inspiring new book shows teachers how to transform the study of memoir into something much bigger, namely, a journey of self-discovery, as well as a stepping stone into serious  informational writing and argument. As students ask probing and important questions about themselves—Who am I? Where did I come from? What people, places, or events shaped my life?—they develop a passion for writing that influences both content and voice. Plus, almost inevitably, they wind up delving into multiple genres.

Though memoir requires reflective thought, planning, and narrative skill, answering those questions of family, history, and heritage often calls for research, too—digging to learn more about that country your grandfather came from, the place you lived when you were first born, that second job your dad or mom once held. Along the way, young writers may also discover what they value most, and become inspired to defend those values. Such feelings of conviction mark the beginning of genuine, compelling argument—argument based on internal beliefs, not a topic randomly imposed from without.

Here’s a book that gets it right. It views memoir as a gateway to writing, allowing students to begin with the topic they know best—themselves—then branch out into a more diverse literary world through research and personal exploration of what they value most and why. Bridging the Gap is extraordinarily readable, like having a conversation with Lesley Roessing herself. It’s entertaining (filled with first-rate student examples), inspiring, and jam packed with intriguing lessons on—what else?—putting your whole self into your writing.

Memoir: What is it?

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoir) defines memoir this way:

Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the author’s life . . . Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life . . .

Note that memoir is nonfiction. It’s fact-based. Hence the research component, which could mean anything from interviews, observations, and journeys through attics or old family albums to Internet research or hours spent on Ancestry.com. Also note the distinction between memoir and autobiography: the latter tells the story of a life—while the former tells a story from a life, identifying and reflecting on milestones that have made a difference. A student’s ability to look back and pick out the moments that mattered (instead of listing “every single thing that ever happened to me from birth until right this minute”) is what gives memoir its instructional power—and its punch. Identifying touchstone moments is only the beginning, though.

Building Bridges

In the course of the book, author/teacher Lesley Roessing shows how to use memoir to build—

  1. A bridge across the achievement gap . . . because every single student comes to these lessons with background knowledge, thereby helping to level the playing field.
  2. A bridge to meaningful writing . . . because students find their voice when they can write about what they know best (their own lives), choose personally important topics, and select forms they love through which to share their lives—a poem or graphic book, say, in place of a traditional research paper.
  3. A bridge from fiction to nonfiction . . . because while memoir is narrative in form, it is also nonfiction. It’s not invented—it’s truth. And telling the truth requires digging for facts.
  4. A bridge to argument . . . because in writing memoir, students uncover interesting details that inspire them to form opinions, take sides, question values, develop new positions.
  5. A bridge from reading to writing . . . because the study of memoir begins with the sharing of others’ works, everything from poems and song lyrics to plays and picture books, and requires reading like a writer, absorbing lessons students can later apply to their own writing.

If you’d like to see your students grow as writers right before your eyes, this is your book. Students gain skills with every lesson. They learn to plan and organize writing, to function within a writing community where others’ ideas and ways of expressing them are respected, and to read like writers, noticing and borrowing strategies from every professional writer whose work they encounter. In the course of the book, students have opportunities to—

  • Brainstorm and choose writing-worthy moments from their lives
  • Explore the memoirs of others, including authors like Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Soto, Roald Dahl, Jack Gantos, Billy Collins, and many, many more
  • Practice writing memoirs of their own—memoirs of time, place, or people, just to name a few
  • Examine the traits or characteristics that define good writing
  • Use those traits to evaluate their own writing and that of others
  • Choose a favorite form (poetry, drama, picture book, etc.) to showcase their own work
  • Share their work aloud
  • Publish
  • Connect what they have learned to components of the Common Core standards for both reading and writing

You may be thinking that a book with this much to offer will either be (1) so large you can’t lift it, or (2) so dry and print-dense you won’t want to read it. Trust me, this book is neither.

Practicality—and Process

I don’t know how you read books, but I always begin by leafing through, just to get a feeling for what I’m going to encounter. I’m curious (especially when reading textbooks) to see whether the writer will offer me something practical—things like examples, real student work, easy-to-follow lists of things I can do in an upcoming lesson, things I can model without extensive rehearsal, recommendations, tables or charts I could copy for use with students, and so on.

Robt Smalls 8th Graders

My first thought on leafing through Roessing’s book? There is so much here I can use—right away. I am a big fan of practical; it’s perhaps my number one criterion in evaluating any textbook. Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a “50 Quick Lessons” kind of book all. Though it’s a treasure trove of practical, usable lessons and printable handouts, it’s written with the understanding and insight that only come from a lifetime of teaching. It goes deep into the writing process, beginning at the beginning—where ideas come from.

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Right up front, Roessing gives me what I’m looking for—a foundation. In thoughtful words, she lays out why memoir is important: what it is, and why we should teach it. Best of all, she separates memoir from a simple list of “stuff that happened”:

Adolescents do not spend much time reminiscing; they rarely think about their pasts or talk about memories. However, writing teachers advise them to “write what they know.” And unfortunately they do; they write endlessly about going to the mall, fighting with girlfriends over boys, or trying out for the cheerleading squad or the football team or relate the saga of a fictional sports context, point by point . . . Young writers haven’t yet learned that, to professional writers, these types of events are the settings—the background or catalysts—to larger plots and truths. (p. 3)

I’m only on page 3. But already I know this is an author I can trust. She knows writing, and she knows students. I’m ready to sign on for the journey.

Thoughtful Organization

In addition to being written with conviction and voice, Bridging the Gap is beautifully organized. The book is divided into three large sections:

  • Learning about Memoir
  • Drafting Diverse Memoirs (relating to time, objects, places, people, crises, personal history)
  • Final Writing and Publishing

Students begin by defining in their own minds what memoir is all about, reading expansively to build understanding; then rehearse by drafting several different kinds of memoirs (adding to their understanding while stretching their own writing capabilities); and then wrap up by publishing their work.

Each of the three major sections contains multiple short, highly focused chapters with detailed explanations of what to do in the classroom, specific resources to share, things to model, and countless  examples of original work by teachers, students, and professionals. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community. We are all writers, Roessing is telling us, all in this writing adventure together, all seeking the words that will create meaning for someone else.

Skill Building

Chapters are short enough to read within a few minutes. I love this feature. Chapter 1, for example, focuses on the use of sensory details to inspire memories that may be buried deep within us. It runs only half a dozen pages or so, but within that short span, Roessing deals effectively with—

  • Free writing as a way of inspiring memories (Her explanation of free writing is superb)
  • Reading personal work aloud and creating a safe environment in which that can succeed
  • Using a picture book—in this case Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox—as a model
  • Exploring the power of sensory details—particularly taste and smell—to trigger long buried memories
  • Illustrating the power of sensory detail through an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
  • Modeling, as a teacher, how sensory details recall the past (The smell of lemon conjures up times at the drugstore with her mother, the sound of whistling brings back memories of a father who whistled all the time)
  • Teaching students to chart their own memories in various ways
  • Modeling the writing and sharing of an original piece

This is teaching at its finest. Students are given professional models to read (or hear), discuss, and learn from. Then in addition, they see the teacher doing what she is asking them to do. They see her using sensory details to call up memories that might otherwise remain dormant—and then showing them how to take those details to the next level: the start of a story. Notice what is happening here. Instead of simply saying, “I want you to write a memoir,” Roessing has defined the genre for students, given them examples to read and discuss, and helped them understand the impact of such writing on readers. They can see and feel how both process and product look. They have the understanding they need to begin—and to move forward with confidence. Best of all, they’ve made progress. A sense of progress is essential to good writing instruction because without this feeling of forward momentum students lose both confidence and motivation.

By the end of Chapter 2, students are moving forward at a heady pace, identifying the characteristics of a good memoir. By the end of Chapter 3, they are collecting quotations from favorite works and charting their own responses to various memoirs as they read them.

Every chapter includes models, examples, and recommended resources, such as books to read aloud. Each is carefully written to build on what has gone before, helping students climb the ladder to writing success, one step at a time.

Traveling Across the Curriculum

I love talking about killer endings, and this book has one—a whole chapter befittingly titled “Conclusion: Where We Have Been and Where We Can Go from Here.” As this excellent conclusion shows, memoir isn’t just for language arts anymore. It can also be part of social studies, history, science, and even mathematics. Roessing begins by listing some recommended memoirs from these various genres to read and discuss, then offers suggestions for extending students’ memoir writing into other classes. Bravo.

Link to Common Core

If you’re living these days with one eye on the Common Core, you’ll love this feature. Each chapter closes with a brief and clear link showing how the lessons just presented relate to specific (yes, they’re numbered) Common Core standards. No guessing. And the number of standards covered, for both reading and writing, is impressive to say the least. That’s the good news.

Now for the really good news: Although the strategies and skills taught in this book are unquestionably connected to the Common Core, Roessing never deals with Core issues in a heavy-handed way: i.e., “Here’s how to comply.” There’s not one shred of formula within these pages. Not one must-do directive. As a teacher, you will have complete freedom to choose the literature you share, model those steps you feel comfortable sharing, and guide students through a process for writing in your own way. You can be as innovative as your imagination will allow. And your students will gain essential Common Core skills while writing in a joyful way that allows them to find their own voice. Of all the bridges Roessing builds in this book, this bridge to independence may be the trickiest. But build it she does.

Read on your own? Or in a study group?

You can surely read this book on your own and begin using the lessons in it virtually immediately. If you love memoir already (reading it, writing it, teaching it), you’ll fall in love with the book from page 1—and I venture to say you won’t be able to wait to get it into your classroom.

If you’re new to memoir, or to the teaching of writing, you might wish to explore the book within the context of a study group. The book lends itself beautifully to discussion—and is an excellent guide to use in trying some memoir writing on your own, which will give you even more confidence in teaching this highly rewarding genre. Following are a few suggestions for discussion questions or activities to enhance the Study Group experience:

  1.  Reading. Scan the extraordinarily helpful Appendix B, a dazzling list of published memoirs for readers and writers of all ages. Choose a few selections from this list (perhaps one or two per study group member) to read thoughtfully, introduce to the group, and discuss. Each person might identify a short passage or two to share aloud, identifying the characteristics that make that particular memoir memorable or worthwhile to share with students. (Study Group participants who have favorite memoirs not on this list should feel free to share those as well, of course.)
  2. Traits of good memoir. Continue reading examples from Appendix B throughout the time the Study Group meets—perhaps for several weeks. As you read, identify characteristics of a good memoir. Make a list. Later, you can use this list as a basis for an assessment rubric (if you want one), or you can share it with students and invite them to add to it based on their own reading.
  3. Recording memories. Follow some of the strategies presented in the first two chapters (e.g., use of sensory details) to prompt personal memories. Make notes, lists, charts, or whatever works to record those memories. Share them with the group or just with one partner, and use them to write a paragraph that could be the start of a longer piece.
  4. Writing a short memoir. Following Roessing’s lead, think about the different things that could mark a touchstone in your own life: time (e.g., first year teaching, year of graduation, travel, a move, marriage or birth of a child), a person who made an impression on you, a place significant for you, an object that has emotional significance, a pet that was part of your life, a decision that affected you. Using examples from Chapters 4 through 10 as models, create a brief memoir of your own in any form that appeals to you: a poem, an essay, a short story, a short drama, a graphic text, an obituary, or whatever works for you as a writer. Share results with the group or with a partner. (Note: It may take more than one study group session to plan, develop, and share memoirs. Do not rush the process. Give your creative juices time to flow.)
  5. Rubric or checklist. Thinking of the memoirs you have read and written, and the initial list of characteristics you compiled as a group to define a strong memoir, create a rubric or checklist you could use to assess memoirs. It can be as simple as a checklist that indicates which important characteristics are present in a particular memoir. Don’t make it too elaborate or you will get hung up in the development of the rubric and probably never get to the important part: using it! Assess your own work first. Be honest—but gentle! And if your rubric needs adjusting or revision, make those changes together. Then, as a group, assess a professional writer’s memoir. Pick something short for this practice, and discuss the process of assessment. What do you learn as an assessor that you cannot learn as a writer or reader? Finally, as a group, assess any piece of student work from the book. As you do so, ask yourself this most important of all assessment questions: “What would the student learn from this assessment that would benefit him/her as a writer?” If you can answer that question readily and expansively, your rubric is a success.
  6. Taking it to your classroom. Close by discussing the benefits of teaching memoir. What do students learn through this exceptional writing journey? Remember to think of the many side roads traveled—such as the use of research to illuminate events or situations from the past that are not wholly clear in the writer’s memory. List all the benefits you can think of, remembering to focus on both reading and writing. Then discuss why and how you will consider teaching memoir in your own classroom.
  7. Distinctions. What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? How will you help your students make this distinction?
  8. Research. This one’s for the memoir enthusiasts out there! The genre of memoir is ancient, as you’ll discover if you research it. Memoirs provided an early form of history books, after all. Consider looking into some of the earliest memoirs: Who wrote them? Who read them? How has the genre reinvented itself for modern times? Whose memoir would you most like to read—if he or she would only write it?

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Author Lesley Roessing, whose work is featured here, was a high school and middle school teacher for over 20 years before becoming director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re excited to announce that prolific author Sneed B. Collard III has just released yet another book—Fire Birds! It’s an outstanding example of nonfiction writing for younger readers, and we’ll be reviewing it here on Gurus shortly. Meantime, welcome back from the winter break, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at Gurus. Come often, and bring friends. And remember . . . give every child a voice.

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by Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks

Conclusions & Conventions

FEATURE 7: Conclusions

In writing, only one thing trumps a good lead, and that is a killer conclusion—Ahab going down with the ship, or Atticus Finch, waiting for Jem to wake up in the morning, or this famous, often quoted one-liner:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Now that’s satisfying—mostly because we’ve waited so long to hear Rhett utter those words. But imagine if Margaret Mitchell, in a moment of insanity, had written, “And then Scarlett woke up—and it was all a dream!” Cancel those movie rights. Hell hath no fury like a reader lacking resolution.

According to the CCSS, endings need to wrap things up without offending readers’ sense of logic. Surprises are fine—but lunacy doesn’t work.

 the tale of despereaux

Happily ever after? Not always . . .

Writers have to use their heads. In The Tale of Despereaux (2003) by Kate DiCamillo, for example, the author addresses the “happily ever after” question head on, assuring us that her ending will not be the ultimate cliché we expect from fables and fairy tales:

And what of Despereaux? Did he live happily ever after? Well, he did not marry the princess, if that’s what you mean by happily ever after. Even in a world as strange as this one, a mouse and a princess cannot marry.

But reader, they can be friends.

And they were. Together they had many adventures. Those adventures, however, are another story, and this story, I’m afraid, must now draw to a close. (267)

 Notice the silver lining amidst all that disappointment. The good, the bad, and . . . well, you know. That’s one kind of ending. What other sorts are there?

  1. Coming full circle—In this sort of ending, the writer finds a way to tie the ending to the beginning. Readers love this. (For a masterful example of this concept, check out Barry Lane’s very funny book The Tortoise and the Hare . . . continued.)
  2. End of the journey—This satisfying sort of conclusion marks the end of a search, the solution to a problem, the solving of a mystery, or something similar. Margaret Mitchell’s fitting ending to her Civil War love story is one example.
  3. The prediction—Forecasting what will (or could) happen can be a powerful way to close an informational piece or argument because readers love looking into the crystal ball.
  4. The solution—The writer poses a problem early on, and then offers one or more solutions, usually wrapping up with the best.
  5. The fitting quotation—A quotation that perfectly encapsulates the writer’s message or argument can provide a highly provocative, memorable ending.
  6. The epilogue—It might be fun to see Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird), Huckleberry Finn, or Scarlett O’Hara twenty years down the road, embarking on new adventures or (in some cases) suffering the consequences of unfortunate choices.

Deadliest of them all

A good ending follows from and builds upon what has come before—but it does not repeat. The deadliest ending of them all is the one that takes us back over the trail just traveled. You know how it goes. It begins with those dreaded words In conclusion . . . And the author goes on (relentlessly) to list the three main points or arguments just made. Enough! We get it. Formula writers are hard to stop.

Instead of releasing energy like a leaky balloon, informational or argumentative endings should build in momentum until they explode with a mind blowing revelation or irrefutable last line. They should leave us saying, Of course! Why did I not see this before??!!

In “Room 9, Car 1430” (1985), author Ursula K. LeGuin argues that we should love trains more than airplanes because they allow us to travel—well, reflectively. To gaze out the window at beautiful scenery, to ride in comfort with space for our legs and reading materials, to eat at tables with linens and flowers “instead of being strapped into a seat with a plastic latter of stuff slapped down in front of you, like a kid in a high chair.” I’m already convinced, but she’s just getting started . . .

Writing as she crosses the Cascades, LeGuin delineates the advantages of train travel—all the while acknowledging that sometimes (as when heading to a funeral) speed is of the essence. You have to give opposing voices their due. She saves her strongest argument for last, bringing everything together with these spirited lines: “The plane, with its tremendous inefficiency as a passenger vehicle, is the anachronism. It is out of date. An administration seeking a sound economy would (like Japan and most European countries) be refunding its passenger train system, enlarging and improving it. Not wrecking it through underfunding and then, like a spoiled kid with a toy he doesn’t understand, trashing it.”

You feel the energy building in LeGuin’s argument, like a train charging down the track. She can’t inflame us like that and then tack on this limp ending: “So in conclusion then, the three advantages of train travel . . .” That’s how arguments are lost. And this is a writer who has never set out to lose an argument. If formula were a dragon, she would be St. George.

 

More endings to avoid at all costs

One good revision tip is to occasionally begin revising in the middle—instead of automatically starting with the first sentence you write. Revision is hard work, and if you begin to tire halfway through, the ending will always suffer. Begin in the middle, though, and you’ll still have enough steam left at the end to avoid easy-out endings like these:

  • And then I woke up and it was all a dream.
  • There’s more to tell, but that’s all I have time for right now.
  • I hope you enjoyed my story (paper, essay, etc.) and learned a lot.
  • So, cats or dogs—there are good things about both! Which one would YOU choose?
  • More research needs to be done in this vital area.
  • Perhaps the future will reveal answers to these important questions.
  • This remains a source of continual mystery for mankind.

Favorites from literature One of the best ways to learn how to write a good ending is to study what other writers have done. Become a collector and encourage students to do the same. Here are just a handful of my favorites. As you read through them, you might ask yourself what these (or favorites of your own) have in common. Is it something about the writing itself? Or is it the feelings they conjure up within you, the reader?

  • The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.    ~George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.      ~Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture to his horse a private one. He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker. Somewhere in the high country that once was Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit.    ~Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit
  • He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.      ~George Orwell, 1984
  • However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.     ~Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  •  At the moment, the pig palace stands empty. People ask, “Will you get another pig?” This I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.     ~Sy Montgomery, The Good, Good Pig
  •  Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.      ~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  •  We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.     ~Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style
  •  And what dance would you do if you were a seahorse? Not just any dance. Heads together, tails entwined, you would dance the tango.     ~Twig C. George, Seahorses
  •  I buried her with her halter and two of the three ribbons she had won. Later that night I went back to her grave—“Ginweed,” I said, “we had a heck of a good time together,” and I walked away from the grassless patch of earth.   ~8th grade student, writing about the 4-H calf he had raised
  •  Fox and I still visit the pond, but it’ll never be like them three years when she was mine.    ~8th grade student, writing about his dog and the pond they both loved

Questions to ask

Following are some questions for writers to ask as they write a conclusion:

  • What’s the most burning question in readers’ minds right now?
  • Is there one significant detail I haven’t shared yet?
  • What’s the irrefutable clincher to this argument?
  • What do readers think will happen—and should that happen, or should I surprise them?
  • What do I want readers to leave thinking about?
  • What do I want readers to believe after reading this?
  • What’s the most obvious ending—and how can I avoid it?
  • Should I have stopped a paragraph—or a whole page—ago?

TEACHING Conclusions

Here are six things you can do to help students write strong endings of their own:

  1. Brainstorm endings to avoid. Then I woke up and it was all a dream seems an obvious cliché to teachers, but students use it all the time. Make a list of “easy out” endings, the ones writers use when they run out of time, energy, or patience. Keep the list posted as a reminder not to get lazy at the end; the conclusion is the writer’s best chance to make a powerful statement.
  2. Collect endings that work. In this post, I’m sharing only a handful. You and your students can collect dozens more. Look beyond books. Good endings come in periodicals, newspapers—even ads. Expand your discussion to talk about TV or film endings, too. (Remember the Breaking Bad finale?) Students who are visual appreciate connecting with endings they can see and hear, not just take in through words.
  3. What makes good endings work? Talk about this with students. Good endings have things in common: They make us (as readers) reflect or remember, suggest new possibilities, strengthen a conclusion the writer hopes we’ve reached (or will reach), give us something to ponder, answer a pressing question, satisfy curiosity, shock or surprise us—and more. Discuss the role of a good ending, and keep this discussion going as you add to your collection of favorites.
  4. Have a bad endings contest. Students love this. Choose a well-known story—it can be anything from a fable or fairy tale to a popular film or television show. Have students rewrite the ending in a way that definitely does NOT work—and talk about why. Maybe the wicked stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” opens a counseling service. Maybe Walter White pens the pilot for a sitcom.
  5. Revise. Provide students with an unfinished story, informational piece, or argument (just chop off the final paragraph or two—whatever amount of text you think constitutes the ending). You can use anything from a news story to a short story, op ed piece, or essay. Then follow these steps: (1) Provide students with the story/article minus the ending. (2) Discuss expectations—how do they think it will end, might end, should end? (3) Have students write an ending that they believe fits, and finally, (4) Provide the actual ending and do a critique—does it work? Why or why not? How does it compare with what students wrote?
  6. Follow some good advice. Some of the best advice on endings EVER comes from Roy Peter Clark in his excellent (highly recommended!) book Writing Tools (2006, 192). It is, fittingly, the conclusion to his chapter/essay titled “Write toward an ending.” He says, “I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal ballad. Don’t bury your ending. Put your hand over the last paragraph. Ask yourself, ‘What would happen if this ended here?’ Move up another paragraph and ask the same question until you find the natural stopping place.”

writing tools

FEATURE 8: Conventions—and Presentation

On 9/16/14 (Stop the Sea of Red Ink!), I wrote extensively about teaching conventions. Check that post for many details on teaching students to be strong editors.

Meanwhile, let’s look briefly at CCSS expectations for conventions, and then close with some ideas for teaching both conventions and presentation.

What does the CCSS demand?

The CCSS expectations relating to conventions are somewhat lacking in detail—presumably to grant teachers freedom to teach conventions as they see fit. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Correct spelling
  • Correct use of punctuation
  • Correct use of pronouns
  • Correct use of intensive pronouns (myself, herself, etc.)
  • No unnecessary shifts in number or person
  • No vague pronoun references
  • Recognition and avoidance of non-standard usage

At upper levels, especially grades 11 and 12, they add the following:

  • Understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and can be contested.
  • Skill in using relevant resources, such as a thesaurus or dictionary.
  • Skill in varying sentence patterns to increase readability and improve style.

Notes on these last three bullets

These last three bullets—those pertaining to upper grade students—are particularly interesting. The first two call for thinking skills and application of those skills, things that can only be measured through elaborately and carefully designed performance assessment. (This has serious, not-to-be-ignored implications for testing.) The third one has nothing to do with conventions—though as I’ll point out, it is vital just the same.

 Bullet 1: I cheered when I read about the understanding of conventional evolution. This, to my mind, is more significant than all the other conventions-related standards combined. It is, however, difficult to imagine how this would be measured—certainly not through multiple choice, fill-in, short answer, or true and false questions: e.g., True or false: Language is evolving.  No—typical assessment strategies won’t work here. We need observation of behavior over time by highly skilled, qualified persons who are sensitive to the ways in which language shifts—and who can recognize the signs of change in writing. Such assessment is not only monumentally difficult, but poses potential hazards for young writers even when well done. What if their writing reflects no homage to recent fluctuations? Does that mean it’s below standard? On the other hand, if a student begins sentences with And, favors fragments, uses double punctuation (?!),or uses words like hashtag, selfie, crowdfunding, and wackadoo, is this a sign he/she is linguistically evolved? And what of the person scoring this student’s work? How does he/she feel about our ever evolving language? Not everyone is a fan of change.

We must be careful to distinguish between standards, those things we have a right to expect and sufficient skill to assess—and goals or wishes, things we hope for, measurable or not. Despite this complex and treacherous web we’ve woven for ourselves, I applaud the CCSS for encouraging students to recognize language as vital and in flux. As Patricia T. O’Conner says in her engaging book Woe Is I, the “quirks, the surprises, the ever-changing nature of English—these are the differences between a living language and a dead one.”

Bullet 2: Again—effective use of resources is an admirable goal, but one difficult to assess with any validity under timed or controlled conditions. Writers who make extensive and efficient use of resources under normal writing conditions may not have the time or opportunity, under the constraints typical of most writing assessments, to show what they can do when unfettered. Nevertheless, quality writing and research demand that students become proficient with a wide range of resources, from print to Internet. This means that use of resources must be taught, even if not assessed.

Bullet 3: Varied sentence patterns: Well—music to my ears. Fans of 6-trait writing will recognize this description as belonging to our old friend Sentence Fluency, aka Trait #5. You might have thought this trait was missing from the CCSS, but it was only hiding out among the conventions. Fluency does indeed enhance both clarity and style—and can surely be assessed, as we have shown for 30 years now. Dust off your old 6-trait writing guide (or better yet, 6th edition of Creating Writers) for numerous ideas on how to teach this important trait.

CW6 Cover

Just how important IS fluency? A study conducted by the Oregon Department of Education in the 1980s showed that in fact, sentence fluency was the most important single indicator of how professional readers would score a paper. Does that surprise you? Well—it surprised me. I would have voted for voice or conventions. But, no. As it turns out, one of the best ways to entertain, educate, or convince readers is to give them sentences that

  • Vary in style
  • Vary in length
  • Begin with meaningful transitional words or phrases
  • Flow smoothly and rhythmically, inviting oral reading

Good to know. (Important to teach.)

The MOST Common Conventional Errors

You cannot teach everything relating to conventions. You couldn’t even if you had years to prepare, so be smart. Focus on the trouble spots. Following are 15 of the most common errors students (and in fact, pretty much all writers) make. If your students can avoid these, they’ll have a distinct advantage in any assessment:

  • Incorrect double pronoun: Example: Did anyone leave their books behind? Instead, write: Did anyone leave his or her books behind? English, unfortunately, has no universal pronoun to replace their—and these days, “his books” is considered sexist. Who knows? Their—once acceptable—may make a comeback, but it’s not there yet, so it’s best avoided as a replacement for “his or her.”
  • Incorrect pronoun as a sentence subject: Example: Me and him have been friends forever. Instead, write: He and I have been friends forever. You wouldn’t say Me has been his friend forever or Him has been my friend forever, so Me and him makes no sense.
  • Use of good instead of well: Example: You did good, kid! Instead, write: You did well. “You did good” is popular usage these days, but it is not standard and is unacceptable in any formal context—such as a CCSS writing assessment.
  • Incorrect use of intensive or reflective pronouns (the “selfie” gang): Such pronouns can be used reflectively: Louise prepared herself for the relatives. Or they can be used intensively: Louise herself finished off the spaghetti. They should not be used to replace other pronouns, such as I or me, in a vain attempt to make a sentence more elegant. Examples: NOT Jack and myself loved the movie, BUT Jack and I loved the movie. NOT It’s a party for Bill and myself, BUT It’s a party for Bill and me.
  • Vague pronoun reference: Example: Just before Wiley pounced on Catfish, he let out a mighty roar. Who let out the mighty roar? Wiley or Catfish? Instead, write one of the following: Just before pouncing on Catfish, Wiley let out a mighty roar. OR, Just before Wiley pounced on him, Catfish let out a mighty roar.
  • Missing commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause: This one befuddles everyone (mostly thanks to excessively formal terminology), but it’s really simple. Instead of “nonrestrictive,” think “nonessential.” In other words, it’s a clause that adds an interesting tidbit of information, but it isn’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence. When that’s the case, it should be set off by commas. Otherwise, it should not. Consider the difference between these two sentences: 1) The firefighter who rescued the child was given a medal. 2) The firefighter, who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, was given a medal. The expression who rescued the child is restrictive; it is essential to the full meaning of the sentence because presumably, the rescue was the reason he was awarded the medal. The expression who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday is incidental, not essential to the meaning of the sentence—but more of an “oh by the way” comment. Therefore, it requires commas. Commas used in this way are a sort of “parentheses light.”
  • Comma splice: A splice puts two things—like strips of film—together. Unfortunately, commas do not perform this task well, and a comma cannot join two sentences (independent clauses). Example: Jim hated dogs they always seemed to bite him. Instead, write: Jim hated dogs; they always seemed to bite him. OR Jim hated dogs. They always seemed to bite him. OR Because they always seemed to bite him, Jim hated dogs.
  • Confusion of it’s and its: Here’s another easy one that pops up all the time. Remember it this way: it’s (with the apostrophe) is a contraction. All the time. No exceptions. It can stand for it is or it has: It’s raining. OR, It’s been days since we talked! Unless you mean “it is” or “it has,” write its: NOT Its too late for apologies, BUT It’s too late for apologies. NOT A turtle never sleeps on it’s back, BUT A turtle never sleeps on its back.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in tense: Moving suddenly from past to present or the reverse can create confusion for readers. Tenses should remain constant unless there’s a logical reason for the shift. Example: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she starts laughing. Instead, write: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she started laughing. Example: I am running down the path when I spotted a coyote. Instead, write: I am running down the path when I spot a coyote. OR, I was running down the path when I spotted a coyote.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in person: This often comes from an almost obsessive avoidance of the pronoun “I,” as if it’s rude to refer to one’s own feelings or thoughts, and more polite to shift the attention to you. The resulting sentences, though, can be awkward. Example: I was almost to the finish line when you could feel your legs cramping. Why would I get cramps when YOU are the one running? This makes no sense. Instead, write: I was almost to the finish line when I could feel my legs cramping. Example: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and you couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it. Instead, write: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and we couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it.
  • Inappropriate tense: For some reason, this error has become widespread in novels. Doesn’t anyone use past perfect anymore? Example: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian jumped. This doesn’t work because Ian has already jumped by the time Jill gets there; one thing happens before the other, and the verb tenses need to show this. Instead, write: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian had jumped. Example: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty ate it. This sounds as if she ate it right in front of him—it’s not likely that’s what the writer means. Instead, write: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty had eaten it. She’s not sadistic; she just has the munchies.
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement: Several things can trigger this mistake. One is beginning a sentence with “There.” Example: There is many reasons I struggle with geography. For some reason, “is” often feels right following “There.” But in this case, the plural “reasons” calls for a plural verb, so write: There are many reasons I struggle with geography. Another culprit is a complex subject. Example: The box of sausages are packed tightly. It’s box, not sausages, that is the sentence subject. Instead, write: The box of sausages is packed tightly. Similarly, compound sentence subjects can cause confusion—especially if they are separated by a few words. Example: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus is the main attraction at the aquarium. Despite the wordiness, the simple subject is still seahorses and octopus, a plural. Instead, write: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus are the main attractions at the aquarium.
  • Wrong verb form following the word “or”: When a subject includes the word “or,” the verb matches the word following “or.” Example: Brussels sprouts or asparagus are on the menu tonight. Instead, write: Brussels sprouts or asparagus is on the menu tonight. Example: Ben or Rudy are scheduled to sing tonight. Since Rudy (the subject following or) is singular, you want to write this instead: Ben or Rudy is scheduled to sing tonight. (By the way, do not look for your grammar checker to catch this one. Most won’t!)
  • Misplaced or dangling modifiers: Misplaced modifiers are great for comic relief, but they can create confusion. Example: We saw the dolphins leaping and diving through our binoculars. How Disney! Instead, write: Through our binoculars, we saw the dolphins leaping and diving. Example: After drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult. Hold on. Is the snow drifting—or are we drifting? Instead, write: After drifting down for hours, the snow would make the drive difficult. OR, After it had been drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult.
  • Confusion of there, they’re, and their: This is an easy mistake to make, even for editors. After all, the words sound identical. The first is an adverb, usually signifying place (There it is!) or existence (There’s an old saying). The second is a contraction, short for they are: They’re here! And the last is a possessive: It’s their idea, not mine.

10 Things You Can Do to Teach Conventions Effectively

  1. Go through your students’ papers quickly, just skimming for recurring errors. Don’t correct anything. Instead, make a list of the 10 to 20 most frequently occurring errors. Then focus on those in your instruction. It’s likely that many of the 15 common errors listed above will appear on your list, too.
  2. Resist the urge to correct students’ writing line by line. It does almost no good whatsoever, and you’ll waste valuable time you could spend hunting through literature for good examples of usage or punctuation to share with students. This doesn’t mean you should ignore errors altogether. Instead . . .
  3. Do any of the following: 1) Pull an occasional example (anonymously, of course) from a student paper and ask the class to describe and correct it. Team editing feels SO much safer and more manageable than individual editing. 2) Within individual student papers, mark no more than one or two errors at a time, thinking of this as coaching more than editing. Most students will not internalize more than one editorial correction at a time anyway, so hard as it may be, put the pen down. And 3) Work on conventions—briefly!—in one-on-one conferences. You might ask a student to edit a sentence or a short paragraph with your assistance and support (NOT watching while you do it—you already know how to edit). Base the length of the task on the student’s skill level, and don’t demand perfection. The goal is improvement, and every error spotted merits approval and applause. Instead of punishing errors, reward editing.
  4. If students plan to publish a piece formally, require editing—but allow help. Students should be able to turn to partners, small groups, resource books and the computer for assistance—along with you, of course! And they should be given time, plenty of it.
  5. To teach punctuation, try removing it from a passage. Ask students to edit the passage, filling in what’s missing. This is much more difficult than you might think—but it forces students to use their understanding of how punctuation works rather than relying on hit-and-miss memorization of rules. Give this one a try yourself (I’ll post the author’s original at the end). Notice that I have provided additional space between lines and have included NO capital letters because that makes it too easy to tell where sentences begin and end. You need to use logic—and (here’s a tip to give students), it’s easier if you read aloud:

within hours the log erupts into flames by the next morning the fire has consumed a couple of acres

of forest then dry winds spring up whipping the flames out of control firefighters can do nothing as they

watch the inferno devours hundreds then thousands of acres the fire rages for days then weeks it reduces

green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal thick smoke chokes local communities ash falls on cities and

towns a thousand miles away

6. Make sure students join you in the hunt—for errors or for good examples of conventional correctness or change. Discuss them—and sometimes post them for easy reference.

7. Share your own writing and asking for help any time you are working on a piece, no matter how short.

8. Have students routinely edit publications from your school (They’ll find more mistakes than you think).

9. Provide (and asking students to provide) real-world examples of sentences that need editorial help. Here are some I collected just in the last week—and there were many more, but I neglected to write all of them down. All of these are from adult writers and speakers, some of them newscasters or government figures:

  • Me and him haven’t agreed on a single vote.
  • That was Charlie and my’s house for five years. (If you can come up with a way to make this structure more awkward, I’d like to hear it.)
  • I’d do it this way if I was you. (But since I isn’t, I won’t.)
  • Him and myself really loved that film. (So—him loved the film. And yourself loved it, too.)
  • There was way less people at the mall than expected. (Two problems here. Can you spot both?)
  • The team played so good on Sunday!

woe is I   deluxe transitive vampire  eats shoots and leaves

Tip 10:

Have some good resource books at the ready. I particularly like Woe Is I by Patricia T. OConner, an excellent resource on current grammar—highly readable. If you’re looking for a quick guide to grammatical terminology that most definitely won’t put you to sleep, check out The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a writer who truly appreciates grammar and has a delightful time teaching it to the rest of us—her book is anything but tedious. Same goes for Lynne Truss’s now classic book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Speaking of classics . . . If you’d like a stellar book to use in teaching grammar, usage, and punctuation to students, look no further than Jeff Anderson’s brilliant Mechanically Inclined. Once you begin reading (and using) this book with your students, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

mechanically inclined

Presentation

Presentation is the partner of conventions. Basically, it’s packaging—everything from the cover (if a document has one) to the page size, use of color, graphics, inclusion of features like a table of contents or index, choice of fonts, and more.

I don’t advocate scoring or assessing presentation because it’s an element of design. People give awards—like the Caldecott—for artistic achievement, but recognition of that kind of excellence is a special form of assessment that requires a specialist’s eye and background. If you have designed publications yourself, that’s different. But it’s still important to recognize that designing documents in a classroom (or even a state-of-the-art home office) is one heck of a lot different from working at a publishing house with incredible resources at your fingertips.

I do, however, believe in teaching elements of design or presentation because when students take pride in how a document looks, that may spark additional attention to other areas, such as research, wording, or organizational structure. Further, good presentation makes documents easier to read—and readability makes readers feel good.

Word Processing Is Essential

Instruction in presentation works best, of course, if students are word processing documents. If they are hand writing their text, then presentation tends to focus on legibility. Be careful with this. Over-attention to handwriting leaves students with the unfortunate impression that presentation is mostly about neatness, and that’s like thinking that good parenting is mostly about dusting. Handwriting has nothing whatsoever to do with the logical or inventive thinking that marks strong writing. Do I think handwriting should be taught? Yes. Oh yes, I do. I am all for people writing legibly. But pretending that writing legibly is the same as thinking logically is misleading and frankly, irritating.

So let’s begin with a caveat: Everything in this section is intended for computer generated print. It presumes that the writer has control over things like font selection and size or insertion of illustrations.

Here are six very simple things you can teach to dramatically improve presentation. Every one of these can be taught through example—and best of all, you can have students find the examples themselves:

  1.  Encourage paragraphing. I am looking now at a text I like very much, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. It’s riveting—if you’re into evolution. But the very first time I opened it, I put it right back down, thinking, “Maybe later.” The text is so dense. Tiny letters fill every page. True, there are illustrations, but not enough to give tired reader’s eyes a rest. And margins are minimalized. I understand why. The book runs over 600 pages. Heck, the index alone runs 30. The editor was probably going insane trying to hold it to that length. But I’m reading it a chapter at a time so it doesn’t wear me out—and I find myself longing for white space the way some people crave chocolate. An easy way to create white space is to include more paragraphs—and even create additional space between them. Space is restful. We could use more of it. (Chocolate too. Just saying.)
  2. Help students choose fonts with care. Fonts should be readable. If students want to experiment with fonts, headings or subheadings are a good place to get fancy. Otherwise, stick with plain and simple—and make it large enough for the average person to read without magnification. On the other hand, TOO BIG isn’t good, either. Extremely large print is nearly as difficult to read as small print. The other thing to look out for is the circus effect—more than two fonts on a page. This creates a busy look that might work for a poster or greeting card, but does not create the right impression for a report, editorial, or other serious document. A good way to teach font selection is by having students peruse publications of many kinds and choose their top five fonts. (Not everyone in the class will agree on this, of course.) Then get specific about the qualities that aid readability or visual appeal. Talk about when/why it’s OK to get more creative (e.g., for a picture book cover or birth announcement). Most publications these days identify the fonts used, making this discussion fun and easy.
  3. Teach the art of listing. Lists are very hard to read in paragraph form. See Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, pages 2-3, for an eloquent example of an exception to this rule. Usually, a list is understood and absorbed much more quickly (and thoroughly) if it’s numbered (like the one you’re reading now) or bulleted. Items on a list can be expanded later. For example, a writer might quickly document three consequences of drought in a bulleted list—then go on to expand each of the three. This brings us to another easy-to-teach feature of presentation . . .
  4. Teach sub-headings. They’re enormously helpful. If I could give an award for best text feature, I’d give it to the humble sub-head. It’s a form of transition—only compact and enormously revealing. This is what this section is all about, it tells us. What could be more helpful than that? It not only identifies what’s coming up, like a good road sign, but also makes it easy for us, as readers, to go back later and check something or re-read. Sub-heads are usually bold-faced or written in a larger or different font, or sometimes all three. They need to stand out.
  5. Encourage illustrations. Some. In the right spots. Again, ask students to teach themselves how this works by looking at examples. Sometimes a diagram of a shark or map of Central America is just the thing. But too many illustrations quickly turn into clutter. An illustration—by which I mean a drawing, photograph, chart, map, graph, cartoon, or any similar insertion—should be immediately and obviously helpful. It should answer a question (or questions) in the reader’s mind. If it feels more like an assignment—Here, memorize this—it’s overkill, and it’s better to omit it.
  6. Encourage appreciation of great covers. Or other artistic displays, for that matter. You might have a contest in which students nominate and vote for favorite book covers, internal illustrations, newspaper layout designs, brochure designs, posters, print advertisements, or any similar category of your choice.

Here’s the original from that punctuation activity. It’s from Sneed Collard’s wonderful new book, Fire Birds, just released (2015, p. 5). Notice how Collard’s careful use of commas makes this passage easy to read:

Within hours, the log erupts into flames. By the next morning, the fire has consumed a couple of acres of forest. Then dry winds spring up, whipping the flames out of control. Firefighters can do nothing. As they watch, the inferno devours hundreds, then thousands of acres. The fire rages for days, then weeks. It reduces green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal. Thick smoke chokes local communities. Ash falls on cities and towns a thousand miles away.

Look for a review of Fire Birds later in 2015.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

After the holiday break, I’ll review Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, along with Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills while making important links to the six traits. Until then, have a wonderful holiday.

Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . To book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Resources

For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding posts, please check out . . .

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

write_traits_kit_150

 

vicki_jeff_small

Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Welcome back!

In this post and the last (and the next!), we’re looking for ways to make writing instruction related to the Common Core Standards manageable. One way to do that is by focusing on essential writing features common to all three CCSS umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. In Part 1, we considered four features:

  • Purpose and audience
  • Detail
  • Leads
  • Structure

In Part 2 (this week), we’ll look at Features 6 and 7:

  • Transitions
  • Wording

And in Part 3 (coming up right after Thanksgiving), we’ll review the final two:

  • Conclusions
  • Conventions (and Presentation)

 

A Reminder

As a reminder, please read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. Now—on to transitions and wording (aka, word choice)!

 FEATURE 5: Transitions

A writer’s thinking is not always easy to follow. Transitions help. They form bridges between ideas, paragraphs, or chapters, orienting or alerting the reader, and guiding him/her from thought to thought to thought. Here are just a handful of things transitions can do—you and your students can no doubt think of many more:

  •  They can link periods of time: Later, In an hour, Momentarily, Just minutes before, The next day, Years later, At that moment, While we slept, As we watched, During the night, As the tide came in, During the Pleistocene Period . . .
  •  They can orient us spatially: On top of the bureau, Behind the door, Across the street, Just beyond the fence, At the back of the room, By my side, In the underbrush, Above her signature, Below the lake’s surface, Within her peripheral vision, On the other side of the world, Across the galaxy . . .

 

  •  Transitions can signal a reversal or contrast: However, Although, To everyone’s surprise, Unexpectedly, Surprisingly, In contrast, Despite all this, Shockingly enough, Unbelievably though, On the other hand, To look at things another way . . . 
  •  They can show cause and effect: Therefore, As a result, Because of this, Since this happened, For this reason, Consequently . . .
  •  They can set up an example or quotation: To illustrate, For example, As one person put it, To see how this works, In one instance, Repeatedly, In the words of one expert, As research now shows us, Results of the study suggest . . . 
  •  Transitions can also indicate support or emphasis: In fact, In addition, Besides, Indeed, Moreover, Furthermore, As everyone predicted, What’s more, To no one’s surprise, Unquestionably . . .

As the preceding examples show, transitions are not always single words—though they’re often depicted that way on lists. In fact, transitions can be multi-word expressions, whole sentences—even paragraphs.

Boy

One of my favorite paragraph-long transitions is the ending to the fourth chapter in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography, Boy. We’ve just been introduced to Mrs. Pratchett, proprietress of the candy shop, “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry” (1984, 33). After just two pages, we not only know her; we despise her. How can we help it? She dishes up fudge by digging into it with her blackened fingernails. So we’re not surprised by this end-of-chapter confession—which is a masterful transition into the chapter that follows:

So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.

The perfect bridge between before and after, this brilliant transition sums up how the children feel, and offers us a hint of what’s to come. The mouse is a tease, like a quick peek at the weapon in a murder mystery, and it’s delightful that the words “dead mouse” come at the very end of the paragraph. We’re humming along, reading about schemes that don’t work, and bam, the writer drops a dead mouse right onto the page in front of our noses. Perfect. Dahl doesn’t tell us what he and his friends planned to do with the mouse because that would kill the suspense. We can imagine, of course. And to find out if we’re right, we must read on.

 

Having a conversation. Transitions can be taught in a very mechanical way, as if each and every sentence should open with a transitional word, phrase, or clause. This results in extremely unnatural writing, as illustrated by this example from an eighth grade writing assessment:

My best friend is John. The reason he’s my best friend is because he’s good company. Another reason is that he’s nice to me all the time. Also, we’ve known each other for more than two years. Secondly, my parents enjoy having him at our house. Even more, we look alike. Next, we have many things in common. Another thing—we get along. Also we like the same girls. Secondly, many girls like us, too . . .

There’s more—but you get the idea. Sometimes transitions are essential, but this writer is building suspension bridges where stepping stones would do the trick.

A less formulaic way to think about transitions is that they help a writer have something approaching a conversation with the reader. If we were really having a conversation right now, chatting over coffee and biscotti, I would be watching your body language and facial expressions to see if you were following my train of thought—or if I needed to repeat, expand, or rephrase something. In writing we can’t do that, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to make the trail of our thinking as easy to follow as possible.

Zero

Consider the following explanation of how modern mathematics began with the simple concept of counting. It’s from Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife (2000, 6). I’ve underlined the transitional words to make them stand out—but you’d notice them anyway:

It’s difficult for a modern person to imagine a life without zero, just as it’s hard to imagine life without the number seven or the number 31. However, there was a time when there was no zero—just as there was no seven and 31. It was before the beginning of history, so paleontologists have had to piece together the tale of the birth of mathematics from bits of stone and bone. From these fragments, researchers discovered that Stone Age mathematicians were a bit more rugged than modern ones. Instead of blackboards, they used wolves.

(Wolves? More about this last line later.) To fully appreciate how much these transitions add to the writer-reader conversation, try reading the Seife passage aloud without them. Hear the difference? It still makes sense, but it’s jarring, abrupt, terse. Without transitions, we lose that sense that a thoughtful writer is leading us through the discussion—not forging ahead with the flashlight off.

Gaia Warriors

Fill in the blanks. One of the best ways to teach transitions is to ask students to fill in the blanks. Try it. I’ve left the transition out of the following sentence from Gaia Warriors, Nicola Davies’ nonfiction text on global warming (2011, 13). How would you begin this passage?

____ you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Was it obvious? Or did you need to think about it? Sometimes, there’s more than one possible sensible answer. But usually, there are many answers that would make no sense. This is why transitions matter. They point the reader in one direction, and if we change them, we point the reader somewhere else. For example, imagine this passage beginning with any of the following: Until, Because, Whenever, Although. All of these tamper with the meaning. Here’s the author’s original:

 Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Medusa and Snail

OK—that was just one word. For more of a challenge, try this one from Lewis Thomas’s essay “On Warts” (The Medusa and the Snail, 1995, 77). Warning—this transition is a multi-word phrase (not that you have to match Thomas exactly):

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, __________________ , they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

Maybe you’re thinking—hey, wouldn’t but or however or nevertheless work? Yes—they would. But those words wouldn’t direct our thinking as much as Thomas wants to. Here’s what he wrote:

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

 

Connecting two sentences. Think how much we learn from Thomas’s few transitional words. Transitions aren’t throw-aways; they carry meaning. Here’s another exercise to try. Fill in any transitional word or phrase(s) you like to connect the following two thoughts:

Hank loved Irene. He wondered if she loved him back.

Here are a few possibilities—all slightly different in meaning:

  •  Oddly enough, Hank loved Irene, but often wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, but after finding the gun, wondered if she loved him back.
  • For a time, Hank loved Irene. During those few months, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, though it was hard. Every time he ate her pot roast, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, even if she was a humble turtle. He wondered if she loved him back.
  • To the best of his ability, Hank loved Irene. In his own pitbull fashion, he wondered if she loved him back.

 

 

 TEACHING Transitions

Following are six things you can do to teach transitions to students:

  1.  Have a transitions treasure hunt. Ask students to find (and list, as a class) as many transitions as they can within a specified period—say, ten minutes. Look through textbooks, literature, business writing, ads (they’re FILLED with transitions), newspaper articles, your school’s publications, or any other sources. Mix it up. I guarantee that the resulting list will have a much more lasting impression than any pre-published list you can post.
  2. Talk about a few of the transitions on your list. Don’t go crazy. If you go through them all, one by one, you and your students will soon find transitions tedious. But if you pick out three or four of the most interesting, and ask, “What does this show? What sort of bridge is this?” you will help students understand the nature of transitions. Be sure you ask students to read the sentence (or paragraph) from which they pulled the example. This helps put things into context.
  3. Look for extended transitions. The transitions at the ends of paragraphs aren’t always brilliant or even noteworthy. But sometimes they are. Sometimes, that final sentence guides us right into the next paragraph. So check for those end-of-paragraph guiding sentences. (For a perfect example, re-read the Seife paragraph on counting that ends with the sentence Instead of blackboards, they used wolves. Wouldn’t you like to know why? or how? Gotta read that next paragraph!) Good authors also know that there’s no handier time to stop reading than when one finishes a chapter. Only really strong transitions (like Roald Dahl’s reference to the dead mouse) can keep us turning pages when we feel like stretching or reaching for a chocolate.
  4. Play the missing transitions game. Keep it simple. You might choose an example with only one transition missing. Here’s an easy one from the chapter on Mrs. Pratchett—there’s only one missing word. What would make sense here? “Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg-yolk. It was her hands, ______, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime.” Remember, the question is NOT What did Dahl write? But rather, What makes sense? What builds the bridge? Hint: It’s one of the following: therefore, however, in conclusion, delightfully enough, for example. If you said however, you heard the contrast. That’s the bridge. Would your students hear it?
  5. Don’t forget to comment. When one of your students makes a clear, definite connection, one that changes the meaning of a sentence or helps you easily make the leap to the next paragraph or section, say something like this: Thanks for helping me make that connection! This makes an impression, and is infinitely more powerful than the more familiar negative comment—How on earth did you get to this point? Where’s your transition?
  6. Find another way to say it. For many students, the word transition has a kind of technical sound that dehumanizes it. Try connection, connecting words, bridge, link—or something similar. Once students understand how transitions work, they’ll appreciate them more in their reading, and using them in writing will come naturally.

 

On Writing Well 

FEATURE 6: Wording

Overview. “Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” So said William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (2006, 34). I love this bit of advice, but admittedly, we might have to modify it for the CCSS, perhaps amending it to read this way: The race in writing is not to the swift but to the clear and precise. (Note: For a full picture of what the CCSS demand with respect to word choice, be sure to check not only writing standards per se, but language arts standards as well.)

With respect to word choice, the standards emphasize such things as the following:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Appropriate use of relevant terminology
  • Use of words that link ideas (covered under transitions)
  • Comfort with figurative language, such as metaphors or similes
  • Use of descriptive language or sensory detail (in narrative)

Language can be formal or informal, and as with all writing features, needs to change to suit the occasion. We don’t wear tuxedos to the beach or flip-flops to the wedding. Sometimes it shifts within a single sentence, as in this line from the Introduction to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times (2005): “The intensity of poetry, its imaginative fervor, its cadences, is not meant for the triumphant executive, but for people in a jam—you and me.” Keillor swings gracefully from lofty to humble, elegant to chatty, in a few keystrokes.

Keeping it measurable. Language can also be inspiring or provocative. It’s the key to voice. The right words can move us, touch our very souls, cause us to highlight passages or scribble quotations we tape to walls or send to friends. Such things are hard to measure. That doesn’t make them unimportant—quite the reverse. I mention this because the CCSS must, by definition, focus on the measurable. We need to keep this in mind because it’s easy to conclude that what does not appear in the CCSS is unimportant. The truth is, what does not appear may be vital—but difficult (or even impossible) to measure. We cannot very well have a standard that says “Students will write quotable prose.” Many will, of course—at some point—especially if we consistently share the literature that inspires us. But quotable prose is something to wish for, encourage, cherish, and invite. It is not something we can demand. I often wish the CCSS were subtitled “Some Important Stuff We Feel Confident We Can Measure.”

Clarity. Let’s begin with a functional (and pretty measurable) goal: clarity. In the simplest terms, clarity means that the text makes sense—and specifically, that the text makes sense to the intended reader. For example, a science writer would likely describe photosynthesis one way to a consortium of botanists and another way to a class of fourth graders. In other words, while clarity is certainly about word choice, it’s also about audience.

Following is an excerpt from an owner’s manual on boilers purchased to heat homes. Keep in mind that the audience is the lay user, not a technician or engineer:

To change the “normal room temperature”: Factory setting: 68 degrees F/20 degrees C from 06:00 to 22:00 hrs. The “normal room temperature” can be set between 37 and 99 degrees F/3 and 37 degrees C. Press 1, or 2, or 3 to select the desired heating circuit. Turn the selector knob; the temperature value appears in the display window. If this is not done, the following instruction appears in display: Select button 1-2 or button 1-3.

Will any of this be on the test? Seriously, I think they’re trying to tell me that the temperature is set at the factory for 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius. This temperature will hold from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. I can change it if I want to, however, re-setting it for anything from 37 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my personal need for warmth. I don’t know what the “desired heating circuit” is because this is not explained—but hopefully, it will become more evident after I push button 1, 2, or 3.

Here’s the deal, though: I have to read this passage slowly and more than once to squeeze even this much meaning out of it. That shouldn’t be. This is not written by an incompetent writer; it’s simply written by someone used to communicating with other technicians. This is important because a large number of our students will make a living that involves writing. They may not be writing poems or novels, but many will be writing reports, letters, PR documents, press releases, or technical manuals, just like this one. And those who can communicate clearly will be in high demand.

As the preceding example shows, clarity involves choosing the right words (sometimes non-technical words) and putting them together in a logical order that speaks to a targeted audience. So—right words, logical order, audience awareness. Is that enough? Not quite. There’s also much to be said for including all necessary information.

Clarity requires completeness. An entertaining little book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999, 57) contains some advice about what to do in a variety of situations—such as, if one is attacked by an alligator.

Point 1 says this: “If you are on land, try to get on the alligator’s back and put downward pressure on its neck.” Pardon? I know what the individual words mean—nothing technical here—but have to say I cannot picture myself (or any sane person) doing this. I need some context. Is this alligator at all large—say larger than a cat? Is anyone helping me? How does one mount an alligator—always on the left, as with a horse? In other words, I’m suggesting that clarity demands including all essential steps, not just the one where I turn into a stunt double.

Point 2 tells me to “Cover the alligator’s eyes.” Seriously? Not unless I can do it from 50 yards away. I can just see myself digging through my purse, saying, “Where the heck did I put that alligator bandana?” It seems to me that this writer, like the writer of the boiler manual, would benefit from a reality check titled “Know Your Audience.” To write clearly, we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place.

Cultivating Delight

Details, details. Notice the contrast in this “full picture” example from Diane Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, 14). Though the topic is almost equally bizarre, her cautionary advice makes perfect sense because she helps us understand the circumstances under which a frog might find itself in a human mouth:

Never hide a frog in your mouth. Never lick a toad. Never kiss a warty small green male, however princely. Disgust is an underrated strategy. Many toads exude a toxic slime that makes predators recoil. The poisons tend to be hallucinogens, which teenagers are often tempted to sample, so each year some die from toad-licking. Toads won’t give you warts, but they can kill you.

The difference between this and the tip on blindfolding alligators is that Ackerman gives us detail and background info. She answers our most pressing question, which is, Why on earth would someone lick a toad or frog? Because, dear reader, hallucinogens (though often lethal) are (for some, anyway) tempting as all get-out. The best example of good word choice here, though, is “underrated strategy.” Who knew disgust was a strategy, much less an underrated one? We humans haven’t figured out that disgust is nature’s way of tipping us off. Gives you renewed respect for your instincts: e.g., repulsive could mean dangerous.

crickwing

Precision. Clarity is also about using the just right word for the moment. Author Janell Cannon is known for her vivid, rich language and refusal to write down to children. In the picture book Crickwing (2000), she describes the capture of the artsy cockroach named Crickwing by a colony of ants: “He had no chance for escape as thousands of leafcutters swarmed over him, dragged him back to the anthill, and marched him down its dark, winding corridors.”

Brilliant. Not ants, but leafcutters. Very precise. They didn’t crawl over him; they swarmed. They didn’t pull him back; they dragged him. They didn’t take him down into the tunnel; they marched him into those dark, winding corridors.

We not only see the scene, but feel it, as if we were the ones being swarmed over, dragged, and marched to our doom. With its forceful parallel rhythm, the episode is meant to be horrific, and it is. Had she written, “The ants pulled Crickwing into their tunnel,” no one would be getting the chills—not even Crickwing.

pocket babies

Making meaning clear for the reader. Informational writing or argument often call for subject-specific terminology. The CCSS require that students not only use words appropriately and with understanding, but help readers understand them, as well. What does that look like? Here’s a clear explanation of the term speciation from Sneed Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, 11):

The marsupials that invaded South America, Antarctica, and Australia began evolving into many different species. Scientists call this process adaptive radiation or speciation. South America, for instance, gave rise to large marsupials that resembled bears and saber-toothed tigers. At a site called Riversleigh in Australia, scientists have unearthed an amazing variety of fossil marsupials, including nine-foot-tall kangaroos, marsupial lions, and ancestors of today’s koalas.

Note that Collard provides a simple definition for speciation, but also includes an example. This kind of attention to verbal detail makes his writing extremely easy to understand.

Animals in Translation

The expanded example. In her fascinating book Animals in Translation (2006), animal scientist Temple Grandin takes explanation a step further. First, she describes the concept of task analysis (a way of teaching handicapped students and sometimes animals) in these simple words: “If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way” (13). That’s easy enough to follow, but what I love is her expansion of the discussion:

Doing a task analysis isn’t as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren’t really aware of the very small separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt . . . If you’ve ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don’t really know how to do it, either—not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.

With this example, Grandin makes clear that word choice isn’t really about individual words (or synonyms) so much as it’s about concepts. (That’s why simply handing out vocabulary lists has only limited value.) Without the buttoning example, I would have only the most abstract and hard-to-recall sense of what task analysis is about. Now it’s a term I’ll remember forever—even though I don’t use it in my daily life. If you think about it, creating that kind of understanding is quite an achievement for a writer.

Figurative language. I want to pull one more example from Grandin to illustrate excellent use of metaphor. In this passage (214) on how the brain works, Grandin explains that simple, visceral fear happens in the amygdala—and very quickly. Analysis happens in the cortex, and takes longer. Only a few milliseconds longer, mind you—but in life or death circumstances, milliseconds count:

You’re walking down a path, you see something long, then, and dark in the path, and your amygdala screams, “It’s a snake!” Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, “It’s definitely a snake!” or, “It’s just a stick.” That doesn’t sound like very much time, but it makes all the difference in the world to whether you get bitten by that snake or not, assuming it is a snake and not a stick. The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.

The “rough draft of reality” is the perfect metaphor for helping me understand the nature of fast fear.

The CCSS require students to understand—and occasionally use—figures of speech. Why does this matter? Because metaphors, similes, or analogies take the unfamiliar and make it familiar by linking it to what readers already know. This strategy, though powerful, does not necessarily come naturally to students. That’s because they’re normally writing to us, their teachers, and believe we already know more about the subject (no matter what it is) than they do. This isn’t always true, naturally, but they write as if it were—as if they were teaching baking to Martha Stewart and dropping a few specifics could hardly matter less. This is a limiting perspective from which to write because it lets the writer off the hook when it comes to details or explanations. The writer-as-teacher, by contrast, has a distinct edge. When students write as if they were experts with something important and fascinating to share, as if every detail would make a difference to our understanding, their writing improves markedly.

The Winter Room

Descriptive/sensory language. Descriptive or sensory language enhances both setting and character development in narrative writing (For much more on this, see the section on Detail in the previous post.)

I cannot imagine a better introduction to sensory language than the Preface to Gary Paulsen’s The Winter Room. It only runs a couple of pages, but within this short space, Gary transports us to the farm of his childhood, alive with the sensory details that linger in his memory—notably sounds and smells. Because of copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the whole piece here, much as I would love to. But look it up. You’ll be so glad you did. When you talk with your students about sensory detail or descriptive language, consider using this piece (1989, 1-3) to kick off your discussion. Don’t be surprised if many students want to write (almost immediately) about places memorable for them. (It’s stunning what memories are unleashed just by the smells of popcorn, pine, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate.) Here’s just a fragment from Paulsen’s Preface:

If books could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells . . . . It would have the smells of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn . . . This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop . . .

Books, Paulsen tells us, cannot by themselves have sounds, smells, and all the rest—because they need readers. “The book needs you” (3). Yes, books do need readers. Yes, it is a dance. But the words are the music.

The Animal Dialogues

Descriptive detail in informational writing. Does descriptive detail have a place in informational writing? Absolutely. Think how dull informational writing would be, what an absolute nightmare it would be to pay attention, if it were all charts, graphs, and statistics. Human readers need stories, examples, and images to hold onto. Otherwise, we can’t put all that information in its place—and what is more, we aren’t very compelled to do so. The abstract is only interesting when we have specific cases to which we can apply what we learn.

In The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs teaches us about the brains of mosquitoes (2007, 283), first laying the groundwork with some factual information:

Of any creature this size, the mosquito has the most complex mechanical wiring known. Fifteen thousand sensory neurons reside in the antennae region alone. The sensory organs of the head are arranged like clockwork. Electron-microscope examination reveals interconnected rods and chambers, pleated dishes and prongs and plates . . . These take the mechanical and chemical environment and translate it into a tactical array of electrical impulses to the mosquito’s brain, a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.

If you’re anything like me as a reader, your imagination clings to that final explicit detail—“a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.” The rest I sum up this way in my head: mosquito brain = “complex” and “structurally organized” and “highly sensitive.” I probably won’t recall the part about the fifteen thousand sensory neurons, even though it impressed me at the time. But I’ll always recall this next paragraph, the descriptive part:

If a mosquito is released in still air, it will come directly to you even if you are standing one hundred feet away. Through the air, the mosquito senses the carbon dioxide of your breath, lactic acid from your skin, traces of acids emitted by skin bacteria, and the humidity and heat of your body. If there is a slight breeze, a mosquito may be able to locate you across the length of a football field . . . . Some people stink more than others. The degree of the stink, subtleties we may never comprehend with our noses, is like a field of wildflowers to a mosquito. (283, 287)

You feel them coming for you, don’t you? Those sensory neurons are important—but in the end, it’s the futility of escape I cannot stop thinking about. I’m trying not to sweat. And by the way, how long does it take to run the length of a football field?

 

TEACHING Word Choice

Here are seven things you can do to teach word choice.

  1. Read. It’s still the best strategy. Students need to read on their own—of course. But they need to be read to as well, even older students. You don’t have to read a 300-page book. Pick an excerpt, about the length of the ones I’ve chosen here. Quality and variety matter far more than length. Read aloud as often as you can—more than once a day, if possible. Read what you love so the passion comes through. The standards don’t call for students to love language, but without this, the rest doesn’t really matter.
  2. Encourage students to hunt up favorite passages. They can read them aloud to partners or in small groups or to the whole class. Or post quotations for everyone to read.
  3. Don’t shy away from picture books. Secondary teachers often think their students have outgrown picture books. This is interesting to me since picture books have an enormous adult audience. I buy them for friends all the time and so far no one has said, “Thanks, but I think I’m too old for this.” Maybe that’s because picture books are not what they used to be in the good old days of Dick, Jane, Spot, and Puff. On the contrary, picture book writing is arguably the most demanding genre. And in addition, many picture books today are written specifically with an adult audience in mind. The advantages of using picture books instructionally are many, but here are just two: (1) They’re short enough to share within a single class period, and (2) They hold students’ attention. I have found this to be true even with middle and high school students.
  4. Fill in the blanks. Take any passage you feel is especially well written, omit a few words or substitute something more banal, and ask students to fill in the blanks with their own versions. Here’s a short passage from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (2000, 272), detailing the famous match race between the small but gutsy thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the legendary War Admiral. It’s a tight race at this point, and Hillenbrand wants to use verbs that will capture the intensity. What would you put in the six blanks I’ve filled with something flat and ordinary? You don’t have to match Hillenbrand. Just make it sing! (I’ll give you the original at the end of this section.)

The horses WENT out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They MOVED shoulders and hips, heads GOING up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and MOVING in unison. The poles WENT by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and FELL behind.

  1. Focus on verbs. The CCSS do not make a big deal of verbs—but in my view, this is a serious oversight. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be captivatingly powerful if they’re uncommon and selected with surgical care—if we’re finicky, as Zinsser puts it. But for sheer, raw energy, nothing beats the verb, as Diane Ackerman illustrates here: “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern . . . The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” (A History of the Senses, 1990, xvii). I love picturing my senses tearing reality apart and feeding shards of info to my brain. That makes me feel alive—much more so than “making sense” of the world.
  2. Explore nuance. The thesaurus can be your friend or arch enemy. The secret lies in knowing precisely what you want to say. Words like smart, intelligent, mindful, savvy, clever, and cunning are related, but not interchangeable. Discuss groups of words like these, asking students to distinguish among them by using synonyms, explanations, and examples.
  3. Model. Create a business letter, short informational passage, or description as students look on. Pause one, two, or three times to ask for help finding the right word to express an idea. Talk about how words affect tone (voice) as well as meaning. If you’re agreeing to a job interview, for example, what’s the difference between saying “I’m dying to meet you!” and “I look forward to our meeting”?

What did she really write? Here’s Hillenbrand’s original passage. I’ve underlined the missing words so you can spot them easily. Notice she does not repeat—and she does not use first-word-that-came-to-me verbs like went or moved. As you compare what you (or your students) wrote, please remember that matching is not important. What counts is coming up with words that are striking, meaningful, original, and fitting (272):

The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.

Seabiscuit

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Right after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll present Part 3 of our look at the Core of the Common Core. In December, I’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative; and in early January, we’ll look at Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills—and make important links to the six traits. You won’t want to miss either one. Meantime, Jeff and I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings.

Thank you for coming. Please come often, and recommend our site to friends. And . . . to book your own personalized writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 Resources

For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding post, please check out the following resources:

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure to order our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

  • Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

 

vicki_jeff_small

Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

Maybe you’re one of those people to whom the Common Core Standards for writing seem just second nature, almost intuitive. You’re not worried about upcoming assessments. Old ground, right? If that’s the case, this post is not meant for you.

If, on the other hand, you read through the writing standards and feel yourself glazing over, thinking, How on earth will I remember all this? Where do I begin? then this IS your post. Welcome!

 

A Caveat

We won’t try to touch on everything in the world of writing (which may come as a relief). Not even the standards themselves can begin to do that because writing is too big—by far. But climbing any mountain goes better if you can get a good toehold, and that’s what this post is meant to give you.

 

Two Things to Notice

If you haven’t done so, read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. As you read, you’ll notice two things:

  1. The standards echo the 6 traits at almost every turn. Have you been teaching the 6 traits in your writing classroom? If so, you’ve already been teaching much of what is covered in the standards, especially with regard to the following traits: ideas (think CCSS detail and support), organization (think lead or introduction, transitions and coherence, ending or conclusion), word choice (think phrasing but also use of proper terminology), and conventions/presentation (think editing and publishing). And here’s the frosting on the cake: The standards also emphasize revision. Big time. In fact, we know that some portions of the upcoming writing assessments will require students to revise passages by rewording sentences, taking out unneeded sentences or words, rephrasing, and so on. This is incredibly good news for 6-trait fans because the 6 traits are all about revision. Every trait opens a writer’s eyes to new revision strategies: writing a new lead, adding detail, improving transitions, finding a better way to say it, being more concise, and so on. So, 6-trait teachers, you’re already a step up. You may also notice that . . .
  2. There’s a lot of redundancy in the CCSS as you move genre to genre. Initially, this may seem confusing, but it makes perfect sense once we remind ourselves that certain features—such as word choice—are important regardless of genre or purpose. Whether one is writing a story about a mouse who falls in love with a princess, a textbook on economics, or an argument supporting GMO labeling, words matter. The kind of language a writer uses shifts, of course, to suit the audience and purpose. As a teacher, you can use this overlap to your advantage. You can teach specific features of writing, helping students understand how those features shape themselves to meet the needs of audience, genre, and purpose—and you don’t need to teach them three times. You just need to show how they shift to suit the situation.

 

The Top 8

So then—just what are these overlapping features that are vital in narrative, informational writing, and argument? Here’s my version of the top 8:

  • Purpose & Audience
  • Introduction/Lead
  • Detail
  • Structure
  • Transitions (also called connections or connecting words)
  • Wording
  • Conclusions
  • Conventions

If your students can demonstrate strength across these 8 features, they can handle almost any writing assessment anyone can throw at them, whether the scoring criteria are based on the 6 traits, the Common Core Standards for writing, a combination of the two, or any criteria developed by a college, business, or other institution. That sounds like a mighty claim, but it isn’t. It’s just common sense. That’s because the 8 things listed here are just features of good writing, no more, no less. That’s what the standards are all about—good writing. It’s what the 6 traits are about, too. Let’s consider these features one by one. I’ll deal with 1 through 4 in this post—and 5 through 8 in the next.

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

One of my favorite writers, Garrison Keillor, wrote an article a few years ago on the art of letter writing. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. At one point, he tells us,

The toughest letter to crank out is one that’s meant to impress, as we all know from writing job applications; if it’s hard work to slip off a letter to a friend, maybe you’re trying too hard to be terrific. A letter is only a report to someone who already likes you for reasons other than your brilliance. Take it easy. (“How to Write a Letter” in We Are Still Married, 1989, 139).

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

  1. Small children
  2. Law students
  3. Publishers
  4. People like you and me—especially shy people

This is an easy question, but a slightly tougher one is, How do we know? We know because good writing is always filled with clues about the writer’s intent. Phrases like “meant to impress” and “reasons other than your brilliance” tell us the audience is adult. At the same time, the casualness of “toughest letter to crank out” suggests an easy armchair chat, not a formal lecture or business letter. And why would a letter to a friend be “hard work”? Well, perhaps the writer is shy. I read this and say to myself, Me. You’re talking to me.

Good writers have a sense of audience and purpose. This isn’t the easiest thing to teach, partly because in school audience and purpose are defined for us: I’m writing to my teacher and my purpose is to fulfill the assignment. Pretending to write to a broader audience for an imagined purpose feels forced and artificial—but it’s important to widen our students’ horizons. One very real way to do just that is to read excerpts (about the length of the Keillor one) to students and to ask them, “Who’s the audience for this?” And also, “What’s the writer’s purpose?” At this point, students may well ask . . .

 

What kinds of purposes are there?

If you’ve never thought about this question before, it helps to have some hints. Begin with the fact that the CCSS for writing are divided into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. Admittedly, there are many forms within each genre. Narrative, for example, could include travel literature, novels, picture books, journals, news stories, biographies, film scripts—and so forth. And each of these fulfills a slightly different purpose. In the spirit of this post, however, let’s keep things simple. Here are some suggested purposes that fit within each of the primary genres (you can probably add to my lists—and you should):

Narrative writing is meant to tell a story, explain what happened, share an experience, make a point (or points) about life, portray the human condition, define a character or slice of history, show how a problem was resolved, unveil a mystery, or entertain us.

Informational writing is meant to explain, teach, reveal findings, explore a topic, answer questions, offer assistance, provide key details, enlighten us, encourage further research, summarize discoveries or data, or help us understand the world.

Argument is meant to persuade us, help us think through multiple sides of an issue, urge action, encourage a new or modified perspective, search for truth, explain a particular point of view, compare positions, alert us to potential consequences, or guide us to a sound decision.

These genres are not mutually exclusive, though we sometimes teach them as if they were. Narrative, for example, can be educational. The humblest of mystery novels often teaches us more than we realize about police procedure or courtroom protocol. Seabiscuit is essentially a story about one of history’s most incredible race horses. But no one can read Seabiscuit without learning about life in the 1930s or the incredible hazards of being a jockey. Similarly, both informational writing and argument can be highly entertaining (Keillor’s expository piece on letter writing is a case in point), and both can and often do include narrative examples. Indeed, most good writing is a blend of multiple genres.

Just the same, helping students understand the central purposes behind these three primary genres gives them a vital perspective on both their own writing—and on the reading they do. You can teach this by sharing examples aloud or in writing. Take your examples from a wide range of genres: newspapers, cookbooks, travel brochures, novels, picture books, textbooks, encyclopedias, podcasts, wikis, and more. Here are just a handful to give you an idea—note that I have not included the source with the sample. That would make things too easy. (I will tell you later.) As you read each one, ask yourself, What is the author’s purpose? Is this narrative, informational writing, or argument? And, Who is the author’s intended audience?

Example 1

Reading [Pennsylvania] began to go through a precipitous decline in the 1970s, which began with the collapse of the railroad. In the mid-‘80s, several key factors in manufacturing began to falter. In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the wake of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the steel and textile industries began to significantly erode and jobs were sent overseas.

Example 2

It is a way of living that infuses you with health and energy, so you can feel great, look your best and do everything you’ve always wanted to do. It’s a way of eating that treats meals as celebrations, that encourages you to indulge in the healthy pleasures of delicious, super-flavorful foods. It’s a way to lose weight quickly and permanently while, perhaps for the first time in your life, you will truly cherish your meals.

Example 3

The funny way I talk is not so much like fat pigs in cartoons as I just get stuck on a sound and try to push the word out. Sometimes it comes out after a little pushing but other times I turn red in the face and lose my breath and get dizzy circles going around in my head.

Did you have a definite—and different—impression for each one? That’s how you want your students to feel. After you discuss samples with them, reveal the sources so they can compare their thinking to each author’s actual intent.

Example 1 is aimed at an adult audience: play goers, in particular. It comes from an interview with the playwright Lynn Nottage in Prologue, a magazine published by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The purpose of the interview was to help set the background for Nottage’s play “Sweat,” a story that portrays the decline of American manufacturing, and its impact on American citizens. This excerpt is largely informational (though an underlying purpose is also to persuade people to buy a ticket!).

Example 2 is from The New Sonoma Diet by Dr. Connie Guttersen (2010, 2). This is certainly aimed at adults, particularly those who wish to lose weight. As a fan of the book, I can tell you it’s highly entertaining—but clearly this piece is part of an argument, one that runs the whole course of the book: This diet works. How do we recognize this as persuasive writing, though? Again, look for the clues. First, it makes claims—you’ll look and feel great. You’ll enjoy food more than ever. But note the language—words like infuses, celebrations, indulge, pleasures, super-flavorful, cherish. These are emotional, feel-good words. They’re meant to make you feel that this way of eating is enjoyable—heck, it’s like being at a party! Did they work? Regardless, the real question is, Would your students recognize this as persuasive writing?

Example 3 is from the very moving young adult novel Paperboy by Vince Vawter (2013, 1). The hero of this story is eleven, so we might imagine the book aimed at students about eight to twelve, though it holds much appeal even for adults. And although it is primarily a narrative, we do learn (beginning with this early passage) a great deal about coping with stuttering. Again, the question is, How do we know this is narrative writing—versus, say, a passage from a medical book? It’s personal, intimate, revealing. Instead of data and medical terminology, we have expressions like “fat pigs in cartoons” and “stuck on a sound.”

Examples like these should sound very different to your students, and evoke very different responses. Share one or two each day and talk about how you know the purpose—and the audience. What are the clues? Is it the tone? Wording? Content? As your students write, ask them to think about purpose and audience. How do they shape or modify things like language, content, or voice to suit the audience—and the purpose for writing?

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

Of all the things we write, in all the forms we write, nothing is more important than a strong lead. As the name suggests, a lead pulls us into a piece of writing. But it does so much more. It lays the groundwork for what will come, sometimes giving us background, sometimes raising questions we cannot wait to have answered: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake” (from Holes by Louis Sachar, 2000). No lake? Why on earth not?

Leads can be ominous. They can instill a sense of dread: “My eyes were closed in prayer when the trucks pulled up. I heard them before I saw them” (from Running for My Life by Lopez Lamong, 2012, 1).

It’s said that E. B. White wrote several leads before crafting the world renowned masterpiece that would rival Hitchcock for suspense: “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother, as they were setting the table for breakfast” (Charlotte’s Web, 1952).

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

Leads can also create a sense of enchantment—like this one that provides the setting for an informational text on tree kangaroos:

It feels like we’ve walked into a living fairy tale. Our heads are literally in the clouds. Though we’re just a few degrees south of the equator, we are bathed in cool mist. We’re 10,000 feet up in the mountains. Here the trees are cloaked in clouds. The ground is carpeted with thick green moss. In the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea, ferns grow into trees—trees like those the dinosaurs knew. Moss and ferns, vines and orchids, hang from branches like the beards of wise old wizards. (Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery, 2006, 7).

Reading this, I feel my heart rate slow. It’s not just about setting, I realize. It’s about mood.

A good narrative lead may give us a hint about the plot—like this one from Edgar Allan Poe: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (from “The Cask of Amontillado”). We can’t shake the sense of dread Poe instills with words like thousand injuries, borne, ventured upon insult, vowed revenge. This is not going to end well. And we can’t turn the pages fast enough.

An informational lead tells us just enough about the topic to make us want more—and may also suggest a theme that will give the whole piece coherence: “Over the years, I learned that rats and humans have much in common” (from Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin, 2006, 7). The notion of a connection between rats and humans is intriguing and repulsive at the same time. Either way, it gives me a kind of hook on which to hang all the other details Marrin will share in this book.

An argumentative lead sets up an issue—and if it’s done well, it can get us intellectually and emotionally hooked: “Most stories about the destruction of a planet involve a villain with an evil plot. But this is the story of how the earth could be destroyed by well-meaning people who fail to solve a problem simply because their calculations are wrong” (from World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, 2011, xi).

World without Fish

It’s easy to get the idea that good leads are one-line zingers. They can be. But some leads (like that by Sy Montgomery) can run several sentences. They can even run several paragraphs—or more. Which brings me to an important point. Teach your students to develop an ear for leads by asking, “Where do you hear (or feel) the lead end?” The discussions generated by this question are fascinating. And to illustrate, let me share the next few sentences of Kurlansky’s lead—which is, I think, one of the best in the world of persuasive writing:

Most of the fish we commonly eat, most of the fish we know, could be gone in the next fifty years. This includes salmon, tuna, cod, swordfish, and anchovies. If this happens, many other fish that depend on these fish will also be in trouble. So will seabirds that eat fish, such as seagulls and cormorants. So will mammals that eat fish, such as whales, porpoises, and seals. And insects that depend on seabirds, such as beetles and lizards. Slowly—or maybe not so slowly—in less time than the several billion years it took to create it—life on planet Earth could completely unravel. (Kurlansky, xi)

This is, in its own way, as chilling as anything out of Poe. And surely it compels us to at least hear the man out.

Teaching Leads

Here are five things you can do to teach your students to write effective leads:

  1. Model. Choose a topic and in front of your students, write several leads you might use to begin. Don’t worry about making a Pulitzer worthy effort. Just write what comes to you. Let it flow. Draft at least three possibilities (any of which can be revised later). Then, ask students to pick their favorite and tell you why.
  2. Have students write multiple leads. Take a tip from E. B. White, and ask students to write more than one lead for a given piece and to share them in small groups, asking peers for their responses. Discuss the process. What did everyone learn from this? Is the final lead usually the best one?
  3. Read favorites aloud. Collect leads and share them aloud with students. Be sure to pull leads from multiple genres—not just mystery novels or picture books (though they’re often my favorites, too). Post these so that students can re-read them and think about them.
  4. Ask students to do the searching. Have students track down their own favorites by browsing through literature—as well as newspapers, periodicals, business writing, or the web.
  5. Revise. Find a lead you don’t like so much (or make one up—e.g., Grizzly bears are among the largest land animals . . . In this paper, I will explain why eating organic food is so important . . . ) and ask students to revise it, working in pairs. Post the top three revisions.

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

Teachers have a long-standing tradition of writing “Tell me more!” in the margins of their students’ work. Unfortunately, students often do not have the slightest idea what this means. “I told you everything already!” is a typical response. What do we teachers want, anyhow? Detail! That’s what! So—what is that? It’s the difference between “Camels are amazing!” and this:

It can drink salt water, or go for seven months without drinking at all. Then it can drink up to one quarter of its 1,200-pound weight at a time—twenty-seven gallons. (That would be like you drinking fifty-six cartons of milk!) It can carry 100 pounds of cargo up to thirty miles a day. It can swim, it can wrestle, and it can outrun a horse. (Sy Montgomery in Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, 2009, 45)

Detail takes many forms—facts, anecdotes, description, quotations, explanations, and more. In narrative writing, sensory detail (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, tastes) may be used to enhance a setting, as in this passage (the original lead, by the way) from Charlotte’s Web:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows . . . It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. (E. B. White, 1952, 13)

I cannot read this without wishing myself right there in the barn. That’s good description.

Harris and Me

In his hilarious autobiography Harris and Me, Gary Paulsen uses sensory detail to introduce us to a most distinctive character—Louie, the hired hand on a farm where Gary will spend the summer. Though this passage is more visual than White’s, it too evokes a potpourri of smells:

At the end of the table sat an old man in a wool coat—though it was summer and hot in the kitchen from the wood stove on which the pancakes were cooking—a man so incredibly dirty that it was hard to find a patch of skin on his face or neck not covered with soil or grease. He wore a matted beard—stuck with bits of dirt and sawdust and what looked like (and I found later to be) dried manure and dribbled spit and tobacco juice. All this around two piercingly blue gun-barrel eyes and a toothless mouth. . . . . Louie. (1993, 14-15)

Students sometimes think that “sensory detail” means including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings, a veritable carnival of impressions. This approach is overwhelming. Sensory detail works best when writers focus on one or two senses at a time. We don’t need to breathe in the scent of the pickles and hot dogs as we taste the sweetness of the lemonade while basking in the warmth of the sun and feeling the roughness of the picnic table as we listen to the distant rock music and gleeful shouts of children all the while watching the fluffy clouds and swaying tree tops. Stop it.

In informational writing or argument, description often plays a key role. But within these genres, detail must also include examples (as in the previous passage on camels) and support. As they read, readers are constantly searching for new information (something they didn’t know already) and assessing the validity of the writer’s claims. Without detail, information dissolves into generalities, and arguments deflate.

The Animal Dialogues

My litmus test for good informational detail is pretty simple: Do I learn anything from the passage? Here’s a short example from Craig Childs’ essay on the praying mantis:

A Choeradodis mantid is hooded like a cobra, its mantle green, veined, and shiny like a leaf so it will not be distinguishable by those who might prey on it—the mantle also prevents a bird or reptile from being attracted by suspicious movements as this mantid consumes its prey. Central American Acanthops looks like roughened bark and dry leaves, the macelike head sharply pointed, the eyes formed into spikes. They kill whatever they can. Females are well known for twisting around and devouring males in the middle of copulation. A male missing its head and eaten down to the abdomen will continue insemination unfazed, its nerve trunk still delivering the last message sent by its lost speck of a brain. (The Animal Dialogues, 2007, 238-239)

Well, now. If you didn’t learn anything from that passage, you’ve spent a lot more time studying praying mantises than I.

Argument must also be informative. But in addition, it has to be convincing. Argument depends on evidence, a very special kind of detail that demands firsthand knowledge, meticulous observation, and often, research as well. Our Planet by the MySpace community (and Jeca Taudte) is essentially an argument in favor of making little everyday changes in our lives to combat global warming—things like carrying your own bags to the grocery store or sending e-cards. The book begins with an argument supporting the realities and dangers of global warming. Note the sense of urgency in the following text—one thing that differentiates it from purely informational writing:

Today, as the scientific case for global climate change grows, the facts don’t lie:

  • Since 1979 more than one-fifth of the polar ice cap has melted.
  • Eleven of the twelve warmest years on record were from 1995 to 2006.
  • The number of large wildfires in the western United States has quadrupled in the last 35 years as the average “fire season” has grown two months longer.

The authors go on to tell us that by the end of this century, global sea levels could rise by three feet, and up to one quarter of all existing species could be at risk for extinction if temperatures rise as little as 4.5 degrees (2008, 4).

Our Planet

Is this enough support to make for a strong argument? It’s compelling because the information is specific and detailed. Facts are cited. But we need to know where the information came from. The sources for this data (The Climate Group, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA’s Earth Observatory, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and more) are listed in the bibliography. They’re just not connected, fact by fact, directly to the discussion. Likely the CCSS writers would prefer they were. Nevertheless, knowing that the information is drawn from credible sources makes it far more convincing.

 

Teaching Detail

Here are six things you can do to teach your students to use detail wisely and well:

  1. Explore the nature of detail. As noted earlier, detail comes in many forms, from charts and graphs to descriptions, quotations or explanations. Begin by brainstorming a list. See how many kinds of detail you can name right out of your heads. Then follow up by searching through writing samples for as many different kinds of examples as you can find. This exercise helps students know what is meant by the comment “Tell me more!”
  2. Branch out! Students often have experience using descriptive detail, but are reluctant or unprepared to use such forms as quotations, facts, examples, and so on. Here’s an excerpt from a student’s argument on violence in films: “Films today are filled with brutality and blood spilling. People die every few minutes—or are horribly maimed or tortured.” The writer offers no detail to back this up. Ask students how a quotation, fact, or example could make this claim more convincing. Can they come up with one possibility of each?
  3. Discuss the importance of evidence. Proof is the queen of detail. It shows, more than any other form of detail, that the writer knows what he/she is talking about. And it is the sine qua non of argument. No evidence? No argument. What constitutes evidence, though? Essentially, it’s provable information. Provable through documentation, firsthand experience or research, or the testimony of experts. In writing an argument, it’s not a bad idea to picture yourself as a defense attorney representing your special client: the truth of your claim.
  4. Become observers. Evidence may come from research—but descriptive detail comes primarily from being a good observer of the world. So practice this. Have students describe something within your classroom, school, or campus. Encourage reflection, extended observation, note taking. See who can notice the most—and capture it on paper. Got something interesting or exotic—say, a rat, hamster, or terrarium—to use as a subject? Splendid! If not, you can write about your shoe, your hand, the view out the window—anything. One kindergarten/first grade teacher I knew invited new moms to visit with their babies. Students wrote expensively and in elaborate detail about their small visitors.
  5. Revise. Imagine if the Craig Childs passage on the praying mantis had been written this way: “The praying mantis is a colorful insect. It can blend into its surroundings. It often kills other insects.” Begin with a passage like this one (on any topic with which your students are familiar—or one they can readily research) and ask students to expand it through detail.
  6. Collect and post favorites. When you come across a passage in which the detail captures your imagination, save it and share it with students. Tell them what you like about it. Author Gary Provost talks about once buying a book because of a single line in which the writer referred to an “alcoholic bull-dog” rather than simply an “alcoholic dog” (100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, 1985, 79). The specific detail convinced Provost that the writer had actually seen the dog. That gave the book authenticity, he said. Detail is powerful.

FEATURE 4: Structure

Hemingway once famously said that “prose is architecture.” No wonder organization is so tough to master. If you think about it, it’s a lot easier to choose a paint color than to build the house in the first place.

What is structure anyway? It’s the skeleton, the framework, the blueprint, the map—or choose your own metaphor. It’s the famous “middle” we tell students about but almost never describe. It’s that mysterious something that takes us from lead to conclusion. And it needs to be well-constructed or readers won’t be able to follow the story, discussion, or argument.

Here are some generic structures—just intended to help you think about the concept of “structure” in more productive ways than “the middle” or “the skeleton.” These are NOT intended as formulas because every piece of writing (except those that follow a boilerplate) has, and needs to have, its own design. They’re simply possibilities:

Main Point or Argument & Support

This is a good method of organizing an informational piece or an argument where one primary idea, point, or position is the focus.

Revealing the Solution

This design works well when there is a mystery to unravel or question to solve.  Clues or bits of evidence lead up to a conclusion. Though it’s often used in narrative writing, research can also reveal “mysteries,” so this is an effective organizational structure for sharing new or startling information.

Comparison and Contrast

Here’s an excellent method of organizing information when you wish to show how things are alike or different: e.g., How much like humans are gorillas? You can present similarities first—then differences. Or, decide which is more important (similarities or differences) and lead up to that—like a punchline. Comparison/contrast is useful in both informational writing and argument.

Question and Answer

If you have a lot of information, but no one point is more important than the others, it may be useful to simply pose five or six key questions (or more) and answer them systematically. This design is useful for both informational writing and argument.

Grouping

Sometimes—as in Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing—an author doesn’t have three or four points to make. He has 100. In that case, it helps to group details, putting those that fit together into one section or chapter. In Gary’s case, for example, he has a chapter on overcoming writer’s block, another on writing strong leads, one on 12 ways to improve style, another on 11 ways to make people like your writing, and so on. Grouping is enhanced with the use of sub-headings.

Step by Step

This is a viable organizational pattern for informational pieces that show how to do something: How to ski, how to housebreak a puppy, etc. It can also be useful in arguments showing how events led up to (or could lead to) a particular outcome—desirable or not.

Chronological Order

Histories and other stories are often organized in this simple pattern of what happened first, next, after that, and so on. Chronological order doesn’t always flow to A to Z, though. Writers sometimes play with time, beginning at the end, using previews or flashbacks, or moving across major expanses of time.

Visual Patterns

In visual organization, the writer may begin with a large overall impression and proceed to small details, or start with a close-up (food on the plate, a dead body) and expand outward. This approach is useful in any writing (any genre) where a visual impression is significant (the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird or Carl Sagan’s description of the Cosmos).

Point and Counterpoint

An argument is far more convincing when both sides (or multiple sides, for that matter) of an argument are presented.

Recurring Theme

Recurring events—wars, floods, economic challenges, presidents, major films—sometimes offer a common thread that binds together various periods of time.  In My Life in Dog Years, Gary Paulsen recounts periods in his life corresponding to dogs he has owned and loved.

OK, so can we just teach these patterns? No! Let me say that again. NO! That doesn’t work—at all. Being aware of various patterns is helpful, yes. If you were going to design your own house, looking through a book of blueprints would be enormously helpful because it would acquaint you with possibilities. But you’d still want to come up with your own design. And that’s the way people write, too. Further, design needs to flow out of ideas—not the other way around. This is one reason (one of many) that the infamous 5-paragraph essay is so hopelessly inadequate. I used to call it Jell-O organization because you begin with the mold and pour in the contents to fit. Works quite well with Jell-O, but is less successful with writing.

Planning Your Writing

How do design and idea work together then? Shouldn’t writers plan at all? Sure. You just don’t want to get locked in with outlines or other rigid forms. Do a sketch, make a list, make a T-chart (comparison list), or have in mind a general organizational design you will follow. Just don’t get too attached to it. Always start with an idea—and in particular, with a question to answer: e.g., How can we simplify the CCSS for writing teachers? Let your central idea drive the design. Organization is organic, and grows, shrinks, or reshapes itself to fit the message. I plan by listing my main points, and that list becomes my first draft. The beauty of lists lies in their simplicity; you can add or delete, move things around, combine elements—whatever. Here’s another tip: Write a draft lead as soon as you finish your first list—but don’t revise it until after you’ve finished the piece. By then the process of writing will have worked its magic and reshaped your thinking, and you’ll know better how to orient your readers.

Moonshot

Drama: A Different Organizational Design

Moonshot by Brian Floca (2009) is so beautifully written and illustrated you can pour over it for hours—whether you’re eight or eighty-eight. What struck me on the first reading (in addition to the brilliant illustrations) was the voice, word choice, and sentence fluency. The rhythm and sound are lyrical. Almost poetic. I didn’t even think about the organization until I was looking for it (good organization is never obvious)—and then it hit me. It’s ingenious. It doesn’t hammer home three key points and it isn’t divided into chapters or sections. It’s a drama—and it’s centered around three dangerous events: launching Apollo 11 into space, landing on the moon, and returning to Earth. Three acts—like a play. It’s much more than an adventure story, though. It’s an informational masterpiece with story as its organizational framework. If you want a lesson on combining genres, here it is.

Here is the general flow of the book, seen through a dramatic lens:

Act 1

This act sets the stage for all that will follow, and without ever weighting down the text, Floca manages to provide us with expansive information. The book opens with a view of the moon, the mysterious, alluring destination. Then Floca introduces us to the astronauts, to Apollo itself (we see it’s 30 stories tall!) and to Launch Control in Houston. The drama begins with the countdown!

Act 2

This act is all about action—countdown, liftoff, landing. First, Americans throughout the country watch, holding their breath. From inside Apollo, the astronauts feel the ZERO moment approach. Then . . . Apollo is launched. We are in space—verbally, and graphically. During the book’s only quiet moment, we sneak a peek inside Apollo where astronauts struggle with life sans gravity. How do they eat, sleep, use the toilet? Throughout, Floca continues the contrast between life in the spacecraft and life back on Earth, especially for astronauts’ families. Drama builds with a huge close-up of the moon and a search for the landing spot. Then, they’re on the surface! And in a stunning moment . . . Earth, distant, beautiful, far away, as the moon once was.

Act 3

In Act 3, the action winds down as the astronauts return. To color, light, sound, air, safety, all that is familiar. This final act moves quickly, but the tension is sustained, for nothing is sure until they are truly home.

 

PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

Floca masterfully avoids common pitfalls of organization, and that’s why I chose his remarkable book as an example. Here are some pitfalls to look out for when organizing any text:

  •   Pitfall 1: Beginning in the wrong spot. Floca could have started with the astronauts as children, imagining what they
    would grow up to be. Wisdom tells us not to back up too far from where the action starts—and this pertains to
    informational writing and argument, too. Too much background gives the reader’s mind time to wander.
  • Pitfall 2: Including too many details. What if Floca took us through all the technical tweaks, failures, adjustments, and modifications? Would anyone finish the book? Readers generally want to get on with it. The mind craves the significant, the bizarre, the surprising—the dramatic. Leaving the mundane on the cutting room floor is crucial to good organization.
  • Pitfall 3: Following a formula. Floca’s organization combines chronology with visual order and comparison/contrast. It’s impossible to imagine emulating this organizational pattern because it’s unique to Floca’s book. That’s as it should be. There’s no boilerplate for an original vision.
  •  Pitfall 4: Forgetting the problems. Organization revolves around problems. There’s always a puzzle to solve, a difficulty to overcome. This is true regardless of genre. If there’s no problem, there’s no drama. No high point. Nothing to build to—or wind down from. In Floca’s book, we are constantly aware that someone could die. People could be stranded on the moon—if they get there. Families could lose loved ones. Without this tension, the poetry of the book would be far less compelling.
  •  Pitfall 5: Omitting transitions. It’s vital to link scenes, events, happenings, details. Otherwise, we readers are as adrift as astronauts without a spaceship! Floca is a master of transitional phrases, so that even when he moves from Earth to space and back again, he transports us on words that provide direction: Here below, here in Florida, Near the rocket, after an orbit around the Earth, Onboard, Here where everything floats, At the Moon, Onboard Eagle, Far from home. Though we fly from Earth to the moon and back, we never lose our way.
  •  Pitfall 6: Ending with a fizzle. Floca’s ending could hardly be better. People went to the moon. They could have died. But—they didn’t. Hallelujah! Best of all, he links the lead and conclusion. We begin with the distant view of the moon, and wind up with that distant view of Earth. Every great trip is like that: It begins with a vision of the destination, ends with a longing for home.

Teaching Structure

Here are six things you can do to help your students build structure into their writing:

  1. Trace the journey. Trace the organizational journey of any writer, lead to conclusion, as I did with Brian Floca’s book Moonshot. Abandon all your expectations. Go where the writer leads you. But at the end, talk about what worked well. Where did you feel guided—or lost? It’s not necessary to list everything that happens—that’s too tedious. But hit the high moments or main points or arguments. Tip: Use picture books for this. You can read the whole book in one sitting, and students can recall the content and keep a “vision” of the book’s map in their heads.
  2. Discuss design possibilities. Use the list of organizational designs (comparison/contrast, main point and detail) provided earlier as a discussion point. These are not meant as cut-out patterns or models to follow, but as design possibilities. Imagine you are writing the history of your community or family, the biography of a war hero or cancer survivor, a how-to book on planning a family gathering or choosing a rescue pet. What sort of organizational structure (or combination of structures) might work?
  3. Start with a list of details. One of the best, most successful organizational strategies I have EVER used with students involved the simple task of providing small groups with a list of random details on a topic (e.g., gorillas, soccer, fad diets) and asking them to do three things: (1) Get rid of any details that are not significant or interesting, (2) Group remaining details under sub-headings, and (3) Write the lead sentence for each segment/chapter indicated by your groupings. Results are genuinely amazing—and this activity works across genres.
  4. Identify the high point. Anyone can spot a lead or conclusion. Identifying the high point is much more difficult—and far more critical. Students need to know that narratives are not lists of things that happened. Informational pieces are not lists of details. Arguments are not lists of reasons for believing something. Every piece of writing (every successful piece, anyway) has a high point, a dramatic or significant moment, a turning point, a discovery, an epiphany, a revelation, a problem solved, a difficulty survived or overcome. Organization must revolve around this dramatic moment as surely as our planets revolve around the sun. Have students identify that dramatic moment (sometimes there’s more than one) in every piece they read.
  5. Take a guided tour. Organizing information is like taking readers on a guided tour of your topic. So try that. Imagine, for example, conducting a guided tour of your school for someone who’s never been there. Where would your students begin? Where would they go next, and after that? Where would they end? Why? You might actually physically do the tour—or just brainstorm it. List your stops and imagine yourself giving a short description of highlights at each one. What would you emphasize? What would you leave out? What overall impression would you create? Now imagine the stops on your tour as paragraphs or chapters within a text.
  6. Stress simplicity. As often as not, organization suffers from overload. Student writers begin a piece too early—too far in front of that turning point or dramatic revelation/discovery—include too much information, or go on long after the piece has ended (at least in the mind of the reader). Every style book on earth will tell you that organization is about order and grouping. Well, duh. But that’s a small part of it. Trust me—long before you order and group, you need to cut, cut, cut. You can’t tell everything, and even if you could, no one wants to read it. Cut. Then cut some more. Students who begin with a manageable list of details will have much more success in ordering them well. Organization begins with condensing.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next time around, we’ll address Features 5 through 8: transitions, wording, conclusions, and conventions. We’ll define each feature and—as with this post—include some instructional suggestions. In the weeks to come, we’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, as well as Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills. You won’t want to miss either one.

We know you are busy, so thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150

Resources

Looking for writing lessons? These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind:

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

  • Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

 

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In July of 2013, I wrote about my summer reading in the middle of the summer, when you still might have had the opportunity to read one of my recommendations as summer reading. Now, I realize that October is nearly over, and that in many places, summer is a distant memory (or a ray of sunshine at the end of the current school year tunnel) and fall is showing signs of becoming winter. So let’s call the books I’m about to tout suggestions for winter/weekend/whenever-you-can-squeeze-it-in reading. In that post from July of 2013, I quoted author Clare Vanderpool. Her words are worth repeating: “Good writing starts with good reading. And remember, variety is good. Read anything and everything from historical to contemporary, fantasy, science fiction and fairy tales. Learn from everything you read…”

 This year, as I offer some book recommendations from my summer reading, I want to add to Ms. Vanderpool’s wisdom a quote from science journalist and author Dan Hurley, from an article in The Guardian (Jan. 23, 2014) entitled, “Can Reading Make You Smarter?” I can almost hear your “Well, duh!” response to the title’s question, but stay with Mr. Hurley (and me) for a moment as he clarifies, “I spent three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, reviewing their studies and testing new methods they claim can increase intelligence. And while nobody would ever call reading a ‘new’ method for improving the mind, recent scientific studies have confirmed that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.” He goes on in the article to suggest that this symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship between reading and intelligence is true for crystallized intelligence—“…the potpourri of knowledge that fills your brain,fluid intelligence—“…the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful pattern,” and emotional intelligence—“…the ability to accurately read and respond to your own and others’ feelings.” So I’m going to take this one STG step further, based on many years of working with student writers, and suggest that WRITING (particularly the traits of Ideas, Organization, and Voice) fits snugly into the symbiotic relationship between reading and intelligence (all three types). That’s right—it’s now a symbiotic relationship triangle. READING, WRITING, and INTELLIGENCE, each feeding and strengthening the other two! The perfect triad for your classroom, and for students of all ages!

So, here are a few books I heartily recommend (I believe you will like them and might even find a place for them in your classroom) for reading this fall, before or after raking leaves or between trick-or-treaters, this winter, before or after any long naps or between hosting holiday guests, and any time you can carve out a moment, such as with your morning coffee. Think of these suggestions as fuel for your symbiotic triangle to give you strength to feed your students’ hungry minds! As I suggested in July 2013, when you “Learn from everything you read,” it’s hard to keep it to yourself. 

 

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The Boundless. 2014. Kenneth Oppel. New York: Simon & Schuster. 332 pages.
Genre: Fiction—adventure blending history, folklore, and a bit of the fantastic
Ages: 10 and up (Grades 5—8)

Summary/Commentary
The Boundless is an adventure story of Titanic proportions and so is the titular train—the grandest, most luxurious train ever conceived. The Boundless is a rolling city, stretching for miles—987 cars, nearly 6,500 people, including young protagonist Will Everett and his father. This train has it all—a garden car, fountain car, a swimming pool, aquarium, cinema, to name a few. And this story has it all—avalanches, buffalo hunting, murder, a circus filled with amazing performers, feats of magic, sasquatches, and a crazy race/chase against time from one end of the train to the other. Cornelius Van Horne, the mastermind behind The Boundless, tells Will, who is desperate for adventure, “…it’s always good to have a story of your own.” Riding The Boundless provides Will with all the adventure he can handle and a whopping story of his own. Reading The Boundless will make you feel like you’re not only a passenger on the world’s biggest train but a part of Will’s fantastic story.

Excerpt:

                   Through the next door—and he’s suddenly in a garden as warm as a hothouse. Tall plants rise all around him. Birds shriek from the high glass ceiling. It smells like summer. Fairy lanterns light a paved path. He rushes past a burbling fountain.

                  Will Barrels on through the pungent fug of a cigar lounge. In the next car he slows down to cross the slippery deck of the swimming pool. The water flashes with color, and startled, he looks down to see all manner of exotic fish darting about. Peering harder, he realizes they’re contained in a shallow aquarium along the pool’s bottom.

                  He keeps going, past a small cinema and the smell of roasted almonds and popcorn…the train is endless, juddering, shuddering steaming along its steel road. (Pages 67-68)

Other books by Mr. Oppel:

Silverwing, Sunwing, Firewing, Darkwing

Airborn, Skybreaker, Starclimber

This Dark Endeavour, Such Wicked Intent

For more about Kenneth Oppel (his books, teaching guides, picture gallery, etc.):

www.kennethoppel.ca/

 

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Curiosity. 2014. Gary Blackwood. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. 313 pages.

Genre:  Historical fiction/coming-of-age
Ages: 10 and up (Grades 5-8)

Summary/Commentary
It’s 1835, and twelve-year-old Rufus Goodspeed, frail and hunchbacked, is alone in Philadelphia with only his well-beyond-his-years, uncanny and eerily amazing chess skills to help him survive. His mother is dead, and his father is locked up in debtor’s prison. Rufus crosses paths with Johann Maelzel, mysterious purveyor and curator of “Automata, Dioramas, Curiosities,” including the world-famous mechanical chess player known as “The Turk” (a real-life chess playing automaton). With Rufus’ chess acumen and diminutive physique, he is a natural to slip inside The Turk’s cabinet and secretly manipulate the machinery. The Turk has wowed opponents and audiences around the world, while the truth about it’s human operator has remained a mystery. Rufus hopes his new job will help him to free his father, but Mr. Maelzel proves to be a shady character, with the will and means to do even the darkest of deeds to protect his moneymaking automaton from those (including Edgar Allan Poe) desiring to discover the truth.

Excerpt:

                   I’ll be the first to admit that I was a pampered, coddled child. In point of fact, I was spoiled quite rotten, both by my father and by Fiona, my Irish nanny. Mainly, I think, it was because I was such a sickly little fellow. According to my father, my birth was a hard one, and the doctors didn’t expect me to live an hour, let alone several years…

                  In some ways, I must have been a difficult child to love; in addition to being sick more often than not, I had a slight deformity of the spine—no doubt a result of being wrenched into the world by a doctor’s forceps. I was not a pint-sized Quasimodo, by any means, but I had a bit of a stoop. I think I must have looked like an old codger in need of a cane. (Pages 6-7)

Other books by Mr. Blackwood:

The Shakespeare Stealer, Shakespeare’s Scribe, Shakespeare’s Spy

The Year of the Hangman

Around the World in 100 Days

 

 

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Upside Down In The Middle Of Nowhere. 2014. Julie T. Lamana. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 313 pages.

Genre: Historical fiction—the horrors of Hurricane Katrina (2005) and aftermath
Ages: 11 and up (Grades 4-8)

Summary/Commentary
Armani Curtis is so focused on her upcoming tenth birthday—party and weekend celebration—that she doesn’t want anything to get in the way of her important day. Not even clear warnings that a major storm is headed towards New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward where she lives and goes to school. Old Mr. Frank, Armani’s school bus driver warns her to watch the news because, “There’s a storm brewin’—a big one—out there in the Gulf.” She begs her brother, Georgie, not to tell their daddy that they had seen their neighbors, the Babinneauxes loading up suitcases preparing to evacuate “…’cause of the storm.” Hurricane Katrina doesn’t know or care about Armani’s birthday and hits the Lower Nines hard. Armani barely has time to be disappointed as Katrina’s terrible reality devastates her world, separating her from her parents and leaving her in charge of her two younger sisters. Author Lamana doesn’t pull many punches, giving readers a detailed, realistic sense of what it means to fight for survival as nature does her worst. Armani must be brave beyond her years while making life or death decisions and facing the loss of loved ones.

 

Excerpt:

                    I ran over and tore down the trash bag so I could see out the broken window. I couldn’t believe what I seen. That wall of churning black water was at least as tall as Daddy and was so close I could feel its heartbeat. I couldn’t stop staring at it. The loud, rumbling sound of the water monster filled my head.

                  “Armani!” Daddy yelled. He had me in this arms and was forcing me up the attic ladder. I was still wearing Memaw’s rubber boots and my feet kept slipping off the steps. Daddy’s body pressed against mine to keep me from falling.

                  I was almost to the top of the ladder when the front door and all of the windows exploded at the same time! A tidal wave came plowing into our house! (Pages 107-108)

 

This is Julie T. Lamana’s first novel.

 

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Colin Fischer. 2012. Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. New York: Razorbill—Penguin Group. 229 pages.

Genre: YA realistic fiction
Ages: 11 and up Grades 5-9

Summary/Commentary

Colin Fischer is fourteen years old, a high school freshman, a Sherlock Holmes uber-fan (he has a framed portrait of Mr. Holmes over his bed), has a photographic memory, and may know more about game theory, classic movies, and genetics (just a few of his areas of expertise) than anyone else, his age or older. He carries a well-worn “Notebook” (everywhere) for recording anything (or everything) about his daily life experiences. Colin also carries a set of “…flash cards, each with a different sort of face drawn on it, each carefully hand-labeled for proper identification: FRIENDLY. NERVOUS. HAPPY. SURPRISED. SHY. CRUEL…” These cards are Colin’s guides to reading and understanding the people he encounters. He suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and besides from having a hard time reading people’s facial expressions, Colin can’t tolerate loud noises, and doesn’t like to be touched, even by his loving mother and father. When a gun goes off in his school cafeteria (no one is hurt) and Wayne Connelly is accused of bring the weapon to school, it falls on Colin and his keen observation/memory skills to prove Wayne’s innocence. Colin pursues justice for Wayne in spite of the fact that Wayne is a terrible bully who targets Colin from the first day of school.

Excerpt:

                   Colin handed Mr. Turrentine a carefully folded slip of paper—a note from his parents. Colin was counting on it to exempt him from PE class. Mr. Turrentine scanned the note once, then twice, his face perfectly blank.

                  “Asperger’s syndrome.” Mr. Turrentine pronounced the words slowly but correctly. When most people said it, it came out sounding like “Ass-burger” (an endless source of amusement to Colin’s younger brother and—until his mother put a stop to it—Danny’s preferred nickname for Colin), but Mr. Turrentine was careful to make the “s” sound more like a buzzing “z,” an artifact of the name’s Austrian origin.

                  “What the hell is that?”

                  “It’s a neurological condition related to autism,” Colin explained patiently. (Page 39)

This is the first book for these two authors, though they are experienced writers/producers for television and movies. Recent film credits include X-Men: First Class, and Thor.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki offers some wisdom, assistance, and classroom focus to those of you feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Common Core standards for writing. She will help you answer the question, “I’m not sure if I can teach everything, so what should I focus on?” We know you are busy, so thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Resources

Looking for writing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind:

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

 

 

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True confession–I’m one of those people, the kind who still receives a newspaper (The Oregonian, tossed onto my driveway, four days a week now instead of seven) and reads my magazines, after removing all the subscription cards, by holding them in my hands. Nearby, I keep scissors to cut out articles that interest me or might be interesting to a friend or my son, away at college. My good friend Barry, a retired professor of English is the master of clipping and sending (real mail delivered by the USPS) articles for me to read. Recently, I was sorting through a stack of clippings, some from Barry and some of my own, when I came across two articles I had been meaning to reread and perhaps even write about. The articles, from two different sources, were about the death on July 1, 2014, of author Walter Dean Myers. If his name doesn’t ring any bells inside your head, then I will have to ring them for you. (Visit http://www.walterdeanmyers.net for a brief but informative biography, complete bibliography, extensive award resume, and a video interview with Mr. Myers.)

Though Walter Dean Myers wrote over 100 books—picture books, novels, non-fiction—for young people, I want to focus on two, chosen because of the impact they had on me as a teacher and on my students as readers. I’ve always referred to books like these as gateway books—books that lead students to more books, to become readers of books (often for the first time), and often guide students to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the act of writing. The gateway experience is not limited to reading and writing revelations. The encounters readers have with certain characters or subject matter found in these books may assist students with personal issues in ways that the people in their lives aren’t able to offer.

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In Bad Boy: a memoir, Mr. Myers shares his own reading history, beginning with his mother, who struggled to read, following along as she pointed to and read each word of the romance novels she loved. This was just the start. “I found, stumbled upon, was led to, or was given great literature. Reading this literature, these books, led me to the canvas of my own humanity…My reading ability led me to books, which led me to ideas, which led to more books and more ideas. The slow dance through the ideas led to writing.” (Page 200) His efforts to write were another “slow dance,” set to the tune of piles of rejection slips for his poems, short stories, and articles.

His lack of initial publishing success may have been less about his ability as a writer and more to do with what he was writing about. Thankfully, amidst all those rejection notices, Mr. Myers had his own gateway experience. “A turning point in my writing was the discovery of a short story by James Baldwin, ‘Sonny’s Blues.’ It was a beautifully written story, but more important, it was a story about the black urban experience. Baldwin, in writing and publishing that story, gave me permission to write about my own experiences. I was playing a lot of ball at the time, and my next story, about basketball, was accepted the first time I sent it out.” (Page 201) In an opinion piece titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” appearing in the New York Times only months before his death, Mr. Meyers again explained the impact of Baldwin’s short story on the direction of his writing. “By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map…Today I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they have all met.” (New York Times, March 15, 2014) In STG terms, I would say that Mr. Myers had found his writer’s voice. By writing honestly about his own landscape—growing up in poverty, struggling to find his identity as a young black man dealing with trouble at home and school, literally fighting for survival on neighborhood streets—he helped young people growing up in similar landscapes by giving them characters they could relate to and identify with. His books became gateways for young people, not just to further reading experiences but to opportunities for self-discovery, personal growth, day-to-day survival, and for hope of a brighter future.

 In the Classroom

As a middle school teacher, I felt it was important to know as much as I could about the books my students were reading, would be reading, or might be interested in reading. I wanted to make sure I could be a part of their book conversations or, more importantly, be the start of their book conversations. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, wrote, in a short tribute about Mr. Myers in the July 14, 2014 issue of Time, that his books explored “…the lives of African-American kids, who too often do not see themselves presented honestly and compassionately in literature.” I wanted to know about books like these so I could put them in the hands of my reluctant and non-readers, students who most needed that gateway experience to launch them into their own “slow dance” through books, ideas, writing, and self-discovery.

As a teacher, I believe that you need to know lots of gateway books (you have to have read them first) and you need to know your students well. Your relationship with the books and your relationship with your students will help you make relevant recommendations.

Here are two books by Walter Dean Myers that, once I discovered and read them, I offered to countless students (and teachers) with great success. I’m not going to say much about them other than I can’t recommend them enough. Dig in for yourself, discover the legacy of an important author, and most importantly, pass it on.

 

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Fallen Angels. 2008. Walter Dean Myers. New York: Scholastic.

(This is the 2008 Special Anniversary Edition from Scholastic Paperbacks. The book was originally published in 1988 and won the 1989 Coretta Scott King Award.)

Genre: Novel—Vietnam War, coming of age story focusing on Richie Perry, a young man from Harlem who joins the army when he is not able to attend college.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

336 pages

Warning #1: This book does contain (appropriately) strong language. After all, the expression is not, “War is heck.” I believe it’s one of the reasons this book appeals to some students—not simply because it contains cursing, but because it’s true to the characters and the action.

Warning #2: It’s too easy to label this book as being a “book for boys,” a “war story,“ or a book about the “black experience.” The real characters and action in Fallen Angels speak to all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons.

 

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Monster.1999. Walter Dean Myers. Harper Collins: New York.

(Winner of the 1999 Michael L. Printz Award, nominated for Coretta Scott King Award, Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Novel, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel—written in screenplay/journal format. An aspiring filmmaker, 16-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for being an accomplice to murder in an armed robbery that went bad.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

281 pages

Other Gateway Recommendations

Here are a few other gateway books, from a variety of authors—labeled as such because of the impact I have seen them have on student readers and writers.

(How about sharing some of your own gateway book titles? Send them to me in a comment, and I’ll pass them along to all STG readers.)

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 2007. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

230 pages

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Speak.1999. Laurie Halse Anderson. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York.

(Nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

221 pages

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Hatchet.1988. Gary Paulsen. Puffin Books: New York.

(Newberry Honor Book)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

195 pages

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The House on Mango Street.1984. Sandra Cisneros. Vintage Contemporaries: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

110 pages

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. 2012. Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 9 and up

359 pages

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Freak the Mighty.1993. Rodman Philbrick. Blue Sky Press: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

169 pages

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

I will be sharing some favorites from my summer reading, and it was a great summer for books.  I’ve been spending part of my Wednesdays down the street at our neighborhood elementary school. If all goes well, I will share some of my recent experiences with Mr. S’s wonderful fifth graders.

Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Resources

Looking for writing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind:

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

 

 

 

 

 

Stop the Sea of Red Ink!

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Maybe sometime over the next month, you’ll find yourself coming home with a BIG stack of papers, finding a comfortable chair, whipping out your red (or purple or green) pen, and correcting the conventional errors you find. Not a pleasant task (most would agree), but essential—right? Actually, no. Not only is the correction of errors non-essential, it’s ineffective—and may actually keep your students from becoming the editors they could be. What??!! How can something so time consuming, labor intensive, and downright tedious have a negative effect? Isn’t that against the laws of the universe?

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Let’s take a closer look at what really happens when we over-correct:

1. Students feel overwhelmed. It’s too much to process. I mentioned at the close of our last post a note from a colleague who saw students pitch their corrected work into the trash as they left class. We shouldn’t be surprised. Think about it. If you invited a relative for dinner and he/she left you a note suggesting ways to improve your housekeeping and cooking, what would you do?

2. Students learn little if anything from corrections. Correcting is not teaching, despite the extreme effort it requires. A diligent student who receives only one or two suggestions regarding conventions may pay attention and incorporate new ideas into his or her editing repertoire. But this student is the exception. Most students skim over corrections, ignore them totally, or simply fail to understand what all those cryptic marks and crazy abbreviations mean. After all, if marginal notes were all it took to explain difficult concepts, think how easy calculus and physics would be!

3. Excessive focus on conventions teaches students that conventions matter more than ideas, more than a thesis or detail or proof, more than organizational structure or wording or voice. Is this the message we want to send?
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4. We (the editors) wind up exhausted. Being an editor for 30 to 180 people takes hours . . . and hours. It’s also bad for your disposition. “We just talked about this!” sounds the nagging voice in your head. And no doubt you did. But even if you talk about it every day from now until the end of time, it probably won’t make much difference because . . .

5. If you do the editing, students will never become editors. Not ever. That in itself should be enough to make you put down that red pen. In the end, which do you care about more? Perfect papers? Or strong editors? You must choose. Think of it this way. If you’ve ever had kids (well, typical kids—some really ARE neat, and no one knows why), you know that once you cave in and clean that room, that becomes your chore forever. Why? Because the child knows you will do it. You can nag, explain, cajole, plead, threaten, and bribe. But kids are resilient and smart; they know when they’re stronger than you are. They can sense when you care more about neatness per se than about turning them into neatniks. Writers (even young ones) depend on editors the same way.

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So then, if you’re not going to give up your precious weekends to make marks no one will read on papers no one will publish, what should you do? Here are 8 suggestions that really DO work:

Suggestion 1
Show that conventions matter to YOU. Wait. Isn’t this obvious? No, actually—it’s not. In case you’ve not noticed, America is not exactly having a love affair with conventional correctness. We’re only mildly interested unless a test is involved. Check out the local newscast. Look closely at the ticker on your television screen. Scrutinize your local newspaper or a current novel. I daresay you’ll spot (or hear) an error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation almost instantly. I recently downloaded a best-selling e-book onto my Kindle (I won’t repeat the title because it’s extremely well known.) I quickly became more fascinated with the number of errors in the text than with the plot (which was laughably implausible, to say the least) and found myself reading mostly for the fun of counting errors. By the time I’d finished the book, I’d counted well over 70, and would have found more had I not been skimming. Show your students that conventions matter, using a sample of your own writing—a business letter, for example. If you don’t have one underway, draft a short complimentary letter to a local business. Share it aloud with students as you project it on a screen, telling them, “I want this to be error free so it makes a good impression. Will you help me check it?” Real-world examples are always the best, and we ONLY learn when we are the editors. It’s much harder to learn when you are always the one being corrected.

Suggestion 2
Use real-world examples. Mistakes abound—so start right today collecting them and sharing them with students. Nothing develops an editor’s eye quicker than looking for mistakes in someone else’s work. Why should you have all the fun? Get your kids in on this. Here are a few I collected, mainly from newscasts but from other sources as well—they’re all mistakes made by educated adult professionals:
1. You are right we can tell the difference.

2. The use of cameras in the theater are forbidden.

3. The high school team was successfuller last night. [NO. NOT MAKING THIS UP.]

4. The outcome of events in Egypt, which will affect numerous people, are hard to predict.

5. We need to eat good.

6. No one wants this more than me.

7. Him and others in Congress are still in disagreement.

8. We are seeing less shoppers at the mall this week.

9. Being really salty, I couldn’t eat the soup.

10. Her and her sister were later interviewed by police.

Share one such “needs work” example each day—two or three if time permits. Then ask your students, “Does your current piece of writing contain this type of error? Have a look right now while it’s clear in your mind.”

Suggestion 3
Identify problems in students’ current writing. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having—subject-verb agreement, wrong pronoun, dangling modifiers, wrong word, and so forth. Here are a few I saved from various students’ work—and then shared for editing with other students (who loved revising them):

1. Being gone, I knew the music wasn’t coming from the neighbors.

2. Me and my friend Harlan were going to float the river.

3. She had short brownish blonde hair and her bangs hung over her eyes, which were a bright yellow color from when she had dyed them.

4. She lives at the resistance of Ron and Joanne.

5. I enjoy writing S. A.s.

6. “Up and Adams,” he whispered.

7. I believe in youth and Asia.

8. Space. It’s the finnel fruter. [This one helps students understand why conventions matter.]

9. She coulden’t even spell “culdn’t.” Her spelling was abyzmall.

10. I am proud to be among the on-a-roll students.

Share sentences like these on the board, letting students know you plan to do this. Ask if anyone sees a problem and if so, what should be done to fix it. (Often, there are several possible revisions, and you may want to discuss more than one.) When I did this with my own students, I never identified the writer, but I discovered early on that students actually liked having me use sentences from their writing, and it wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, “That’s from my paper!” as if it were a badge of honor to be chosen for the daily editing workout.

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: e.g., What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples:
Choose one: Events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (are, Events are . . . )
Choose one: The outcome of events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (is, The outcome is . . . )
Next, provide students with a short text containing 3 or more errors of the type you’re focusing on. Have them
1. Edit independently,
2. Check with a partner,
3. Coach you as you go through the text, identifying and correcting errors.
Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources. Keep them short: 30 words for young students, 50 or so for middle schoolers, about 100+ for high school students.
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Suggestion 5
Check out how the pro’s use conventions. One of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice, and organization: through literary examples.
Here are just a few that caught my eye. Note that before you point out what you’ve noticed, you’ll want to ask students to tell you what they notice about each example. And once you’ve shared a few, you’ll want students hunting for their own. Have them hunt with partners. You’ll be surprised by how much your students actually enjoy conventions with this activity.

• No one uses dashes with more grace than Neal Shusterman, as in this example from The Schwa Was Here (Penguin, 2004, p. 37): “His hair was kinda ashen blond—real wispy, like if you held a magnetized balloon over his head, all his hair would stand on end.” What to notice: A dash can work like a pointing finger, indicating a thought you don’t want the reader to miss.

• In Peter and the Starcatchers (a delightful, voice-filled novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), the character Tubby Ted is eager to dive into some pirate soup—until he makes a gruesome discovery and lets out a yell: “IT’S ALIVE!” (Hyperion, 2006, p. 38). What to notice: FULL CAPITALS are great for expressing anger, alarm, or fear.

• In Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine uses conventions in extraordinary ways to show how Caitlin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, responds to the world: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or greGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (Philomel, 2010, p. 44). What to notice: Creative use of italics and unexpected capitals helps us get inside Caitlin’s head.

• The humble hyphen is useful in two-part words (like that one) or for splitting multi-syllable words at the end of a line. But perhaps it has more creative uses, as in this passage from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool—in which one of the main characters, Jack, is wondering just how strange his new acquaintance Early Auden might be: “Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange?” (Delacorte, 2013, p. 28). What to notice: Hyphens can help a writer create unique adjectives that put some pretty vivid images in readers’ minds.

• Stephen Hawking opens his book A Brief History of Time with an outstanding example of how to use parentheses: “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy” (Bantam, 1996, p. 1). What to notice: I like to tell students that parentheses are like the cupped hands a person might make when whispering a secret to someone. Parenthetical comments are like that.

• In his brilliant book Oh, Rats! author Albert Marrin offers some classic examples of how to use the semicolon. Here’s one of them: “A rat is not finicky about its food; it will eat anything that will not eat it first” (Penguin, 2006, p. 13). What to notice: This sentence is made up of two small sentences (clauses) that are closely connected. They depend on each other for meaning, like people holding hands on a slippery slope depend on each other for balance. The semicolon connects sentences just as the joining of hands connects people.

• In The Good, Good Pig, author Sy Montgomery uses semicolons in a totally different way [Christopher, by the way, is a pig]: “We lined up to face the camera in ascending seniority: Christopher, age one; me, thirty-three; Liz, sixty; Lorna, ninety-three” (Random House, 2007, p. 64). What to notice: Semicolons provide a nifty way to handle a complex series in which too many commas could create confusion.

• In this passage from Hatchet (20th Anniversary Edition) by Gary Paulsen, the hero Brian (who is beyond hungry), is watching a kingfisher go after a meal. Think about how the ellipses at the very end affect you: “Of course, he thought. There were fish in the lake and they were food. And if a bird could do it . . .” (Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 108). What to notice: The ellipses give us time to enjoy the same aha moment Brian is experiencing, to fill in the blank, as it were: If a bird can do it . . . maybe I can, too.

As you and your students collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to express both meaning and voice.

Suggestion 6
Wait 3 days to edit. Almost no one (including skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what’s on the page. Allowing time after drafting creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. Then we’re prepared to edit with the same zest we’d use in reviewing someone else’s work.

Suggestion 7
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud slows us down, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud.

Suggestion 8
Keep it real. Students for whom editing does not come easily may feel very nervous about writing five pages if they anticipate having to edit every line. While I am a huge advocate of making students responsible for their own editing, I also agree that we need to find ways to make the task manageable for students who dread it. After all, we want them to write more, not less.

You can ask a struggling writer to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme care—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits meticulously can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons or demos.

Many students benefit from having a teacher mark (with a check, star, etc.) those lines in which errors appear (some teachers use a number to show how many errors a given line contains). No need to mark every line. Use your judgment in determining how much the student can handle—and think about which errors should receive priority.

A 3-minute conventions conference can be helpful, too. Focus on the one or two errors you think deserve the most attention. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find one or more similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. In addition, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (a list that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write.
And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world.

And finally . . .
Get a good handbook. No one ever masters conventions. There’s far too much to learn, and English conventions are constantly changing. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. For the basics, consider—

The Chicago Style Manual (the most respected source out there—and most complete by far)
MLA Handbook, 7th edition (some portions are also available online)
The Write Source College Handbook by Dave Kemper and Patrick Sebranek (other grade-specific handbooks are available from these authors, but I happen to prefer the college edition, even for younger students)

When a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time.
The following supplementary resources are extremely entertaining and will let your students in on the little known fact that conventions have a humorous side:
Words Fail Me and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Don’t forget to celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be. 012

Notice content and voice first. After all, what’s the point of editing if no one is listening to your message?
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Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

Discuss conventional evolution with your students. There’s nothing stagnant about English; it’s dynamic and changes hourly! Split infinitives? Commonplace! They actually precede Shakespeare (who is reported to have used a few). Dickens apparently favored sentences that began with “And” or “But” (Good news for me since I like them, too). Snuck is becoming an accepted form of sneaked (though not in all circles, admittedly). Words like dis, acquihire, creds, bling, tech-savvy, binge-watch, air punch, amazeballs, subtweet, listicle, bikeable, Paleo diet, hot mess, humblebrag, and side-eye weren’t even words (at least not in the modern sense) until recently, but they’re finding their way into Webster’s. For numerous other examples of English on the move, check out the fascinating Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner, a brilliantly researched and very funny book you will enjoy sharing (one selected passage at a time) with your students. Then talk about which conventions will last (Is the semicolon doomed? Are dashes enjoying a renaissance?), and why our amazing (or should I say amazeballs) language is ever-evolving—and expanding.

Looking for editing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:
http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

Coming up on Gurus . . .
I will be reviewing Vince Vawter’s novel Paperboy, the story of an exceptional eleven-year-old who struggles with stuttering. Jeff will share reviews of his own, together with some lessons learned through his recent experience working with fifth graders. And down the road (once it’s released), we’ll take a close-up look at Sneed Collard’s wonderful new nonfiction piece titled Firebirds. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Redwoods2
Do you teach writing? If so, you probably already know what you’re doing on that first day back in the classroom, right? But just in case, we have some suggestions.

First off, how about a little free writing? Even five minutes of writing whatever comes into your head can improve concentration and focus, create a reflective frame of mind (something all writers need), prepare students to think on a deeper level, and provide additional writing practice. Plus—and this is BIG—it can occur in any class, not just English or language arts. You do NOT need to grade or (heaven forbid) correct what students write during this time. Take it easy. Write with students—and every now and then, share a selected entry aloud. Or, invite students to share their own self-selected entries (on occasion) in small groups or with the class. Journals need to be basically private (to encourage the most honest writing), so sharing should be voluntary, fun, brief, and based on entries students feel comfortable sharing aloud. For more information on what this little five-minute activity can do for your writers, check out the following article, cited in Marshall Memo 546, August 4, 2014:

“The Obvious Benefits of In-Class Writing Assignments” by David Gooblar in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2014 (Vol. LX, #41, p. A31),

https://chroniclevitae.com/news/588-the-obvious-benefits-of-in-class-writing-assignments

That’s not our only suggestion! Here are 6 more. And by the way, you don’t have to do these things just on Day 1—you can do them any time (and more than once)!

1. Brainstorm Topics. What’s the number one question students ask any visiting writer? You’ve got it: Where do you get your ideas? The truth is (and almost every writer will tell you this), ideas come to you right out of life itself. Every experience or observation has a built-in story or topic to research—or potential argument to be made. And you don’t need to cruise the Mediterranean or complete Mission Impossible to find a writing-worthy topic. Students will see this is so if you model some writing ideas of your own. Make a list and share it with students. Three to five topics are plenty, and keep them modest so students can see how topics arise from everyday life. Here’s my list:
• Best books of the past summer
• The art of xeriscaping (growing plants with minimal water)
• Attracting owls to your yard
• Ups and downs of a low-carb diet
• Why TV is now better than the movies
• Family reunions: a good idea?
• Explosion in the local frog population
• Riding horses on the beach

I can take any one of these topics and craft a story, informational piece (with some research, of course), or argument. And this is a good thing to model, too. Take xeriscaping. Here are three different spins on this one topic:

Narrative: My experience trying to grow Russian Sage (a plant most people find easy—but I don’t!)
Informational: How to transform your yard into a xeriscape garden
Argument: Why xeriscaping is an ecological necessity in a time of depleted water resources

2. Read aloud. This past May, we lost one of Earth’s great souls—Maya Angelou. Her work accompanied me on virtually every workshop I ever did. Her words were inevitably lyrical and strikingly wise (for a collection of her most quotable moments, check out BrainyQuote). Shortly after her death, I saw a brief interview from many years ago, re-run on CBS. She spoke of a visit to a friend’s house when she (Maya) was around seven. The woman’s house was filled with books, and she took one down from the shelf to read aloud to Marguerite (as Maya was then called). It was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. As she remembered this episode during the interview, Maya imitated the dramatic, measured cadence of the woman’s voice: “It was . . . the best of times . . . It was . . . the worst of times . . .” Maya recalled her pronouncing each word with precise articulation and dramatic resonance. Even as a small child, Maya recognized the words (she was an avid reader, familiar with Dickens)—and indeed recognized the book, for she had it in her own home. But she recalled thinking, “I didn’t know it sounded like that.” Oral reading has an impact on listeners of all ages. Pick something you love and plan to share it with your students. And don’t—seriously, don’t—feel compelled to read the whole piece unless it’s short: a picture book, essay, or poem, for instance. Choose a portion you can read in limited time. I say this only because if you bite off too much, you’ll always find a reason you can’t fit oral reading into your schedule. And oh, what your students will miss. This is the best way to teach voice—but in addition, you introduce students to ideas, words, and sentence rhythms they wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Extreme Life of the Sea
My hands-down favorite new book from this past summer was The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton University Press, 2014). It’s an informational text, written with the music of fine poetry. And if I were choosing a passage to read aloud, it would be this one, from the Prologue:

It’s dark and cold and very deep. A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) cruises through the ink, descending towards the floor of the world. He’s hunting: powerful muscles and hot blood collaborating to run down rare prey in the cold, oxygen-poor depths. Down and up, dive and ascent, each cycle punctuated with foul-smelling blowhole gasps at the surface. A long life and great bulk lend the bull patience, and he passes by trivial morsels in search of more substantial fare. His broad tail and heavy muscles produce a steady cruising speed. Tiny eyes little bigger than a cow’s peer through deepening blues, oriented to look down and not ahead. In the dark, that patience bears fruit: a mile down, the world’s biggest predator meets its most fearsome prey.

That prey is, of course, the giant squid, up to 55 feet long, equipped with (we soon learn) a sharp beak and claw-like hooks on the ends of its tentacles. It will be a fearsome battle—but I’ll save that passage for next time! These are the questions I would have for students:

• What do you picture as you listen to this passage?
• What do you feel?
• Is there a word or phrase that sticks in your mind?
• Who’s going to win the battle?

Reading the passage a second time makes questions like these much easier to answer. After your discussion, challenge students to come up with a read-aloud passage of their own (from any source), to share in, say, a week. (And yes, they should come up with questions to ask you and their classmates—that’s part of the fun.)

3. Introduce revision. Revision? Isn’t that kind of . . . well, big? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be very small and manageable. Your students will gain more from small, focused revision lessons than from starting out re-doing whole essays or narratives. This lesson shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The purpose is to introduce the concept of revision through one conquerable task.

In introducing revision, I like to start with something almost every reader understands intuitively: the lead. Good leads matter. They make us read on—or put the piece down and go on to something else. You can begin this lesson in any number of ways:

• Discuss the concept of revision. What things (besides writing) do we revise? Our hair, clothes, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Remodeling a house is a form of revision. So is restructuring a curriculum. Or modifying a road trip—or re-doing a menu for the family picnic. Examples of real-world revision are endless.
• Talk about what a lead is and does. Why do leads matter? Who can recall a lead that stuck in his or her mind?
• Have students open various books (fiction and nonfiction alike) and read the leads aloud (or read leads from news stories). Comment on which ones work best and why.
• Share some of your own favorite leads. (A few of my own favorites are found in the following books: A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, In a Sunburned Country, The Catcher in the Rye, Paperboy, Counting by 7s, Matilda, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, Running for My Life, Seahorses, Seabiscuit, Animal Dialogues, The Tarantula Scientist, Birdology, The Good, Good Pig, The Teacher’s Funeral.) Choose at least five to read aloud and ask students which one is their favorite—and why. This will expand your discussion of what makes a good lead.

Next, give students a lead that needs work. Write this yourself if you don’t have an anonymous example. Think of the leads you’re tired of: the “this paper will be about” or “I will explain” kinds of leads that set up a topic in a mechanical sort of way and strike a death blow to reader curiosity. Let’s say I’m writing a report on New Zealand and I begin this way:

New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean. It lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia. It has over four million residents and most of them live in cities, though some live on farms. It has volcanoes and mountains. It also has many, many sheep.

Are you still awake? You probably cannot imagine a much more tedious lead. But maybe you cannot imagine a better one either unless you know something about New Zealand. This is the important part. Even the most imaginative writers cannot write effectively on topics they know nothing about. So give students some information to work from. Copy a page from an encyclopedia or travel brochure/book so students can do some brief on-the-spot, in-class research. The text should run no more than a half-page to a page long. That’s plenty! Then have students work in pairs (much more fun) to write a lead for a travel book, a lead strong enough to get people to sign up for a tour. The team that gets the most people (class vote) to sign up wins the contest. (Wouldn’t it be GREAT if the prize could be an actual trip to New Zealand?)

After spending just five minutes skimming through The Rough Guide to New Zealand, I revised my lead to read this way:

Imagine a country where sheep outnumber people 40 to one. In New Zealand, an island country two-thirds the size of California, sheep are so plentiful they create their own traffic jams, often stranding motorists on windy back-country roads for hours. Oddly, tourists don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they’re too busy photographing the mountains, fjords, volcanoes, and incredible black or white sand beaches. Since the filming of “Lord of the Rings,” more people are flocking to New Zealand (no pun intended) than ever before in the country’s 800-year history, and this could be the year you’re one of them.

Are you ready to sign up? Ready or not, you likely agree it’s an improvement. The question is, why? Talk with students. Then have them share their own “before and after” examples to discuss.

4. Help students think like writers. What does this mean? Several things. First, writers are readers. There is simply no way to become a writer without reading. Make a list (with students) of the things you have all read in the past month. Don’t leave anything out, however humble. It’s easy to overlook things like post cards, ads, cookbooks, on-line reviews, or signs. Don’t. List them all. Talk about how important it is to read divergently and avidly, all the time. Poetry, drama, informational essays, journalistic stories, advertisements, warnings in medicine bottles—they’re all important, and they all have lessons to teach. Writers record bits and pieces from their reading regularly: favorite words and phrases, favorite sentences, chapter titles, names, anything. Writers are collectors (another reason a journal is vital).

Second, writers are observers. They are curious about everyone, everywhere, and everything. They’re never bored. Boredom isn’t allowed in the world of writing. They take in the tiniest details: the shape of a leaf, the speed with which a caterpillar moves, the colors in a plaid shirt or muddy bog, the feel of a spider crawling up your arm, the sound of a child’s voice or an old phonograph record, the smell of a dog’s breath or newly cut grass. The smaller the detail, the more important it is. Talk about ways to record these details so they’re not lost, so you can go back to the “well” and dip in.

Finally, writers write. Every day, if possible. They don’t necessarily write pages and pages, like Freddie Einsford Hill from My Fair Lady. But they do write—an email, a post card, a note to self, a journal entry, a short description of something seen or experienced, a brief review of a book or film, a recipe to share, a single line of dialogue for a novel-of-the-future. Horace said it best in 65 B.C.: “Never a day without a line.”

5. Assess a piece of writing. Almost nothing you can do as a writing teacher will prompt better discussions or deeper understanding of writing than this simple activity. Choose a piece of writing (I usually use a student paper, but you can use anything in print) to assess as a class. If your students know the six traits, you can have them use a student friendly rubric (5-point or 6-point). Check the book Creating Writers (6th edition) or one of our Write Traits Classroom Kits (2nd edition) for copies. Both resources also contain many student papers at all grade levels that you can assess and discuss with your students. Following is a legendary paper I’ve used in countless workshops and in many classrooms as well. It invites wide ranging comments on what constitutes good writing—and what this particular piece needs to make it stronger:

The Redwoods
Last year, we went on a vacation and we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and there was lots to do, so we were never bored.

My parents visited friends and took pictures for their friends back home. My brother and I swam and also hiked in the woods. When we got tired of that, we just ate and had a wonderful time.

It was exciting and fun to be together as a family and to do things together. I love my family, and this is a time that I will remember for a long time. I hope we will go back again next year for more fun and an even better time than we had this year.

If your students know the six traits, have them score the paper on one or more traits. I think the three most important to discuss in connection with “The Redwoods” are ideas, voice, and conventions. Most students (like teachers, for that matter) see big problems with ideas (no details!) and voice (this writer is pretty disengaged)—but agree that the conventions, while not very sophisticated, are fairly strong (at least there aren’t mistakes).

Here’s a quick way to “score” this or any paper without getting too hung up on numbers. Read the paper aloud. Then go through the traits and ask whether readers see/hear more strengths or problems in each trait. With “The Redwoods,” readers typically find conventions and organization to be the strongest traits, ideas and voice the weakest. The sentences are also sound, if not musical. Word choice is clear and functional, though not particularly original or striking.

I also like to ask students if they think the writer is male or female. Most say male—but that’s wrong. I ask the grade level of the writer, and almost no one gets this right. What do you think? The most common answer by far is grade 3, though guesses range from grade 1 through grade 8. On a rare occasion, someone guesses this is an adult—and ironically, that’s pretty close! In fact, it’s actually an eleventh grade girl. She was a student in my writing class at a community college some years ago. And by the way, she was a fine writer—as later pieces showed. I also always ask students to guess what they think the assignment was. What comes to your mind? You may be thinking this was the cliché “What did you do on your summer vacation?” assignment. But, no. Even back in the day, I like to think I was more imaginative than that. I had asked students to write about an experience in which the five senses played an important part. If you’ve ever visited the Redwoods, then you know that this student chose an outstanding topic. She just didn’t take time to develop it.

Redwoods
When you score a paper with students, keep in mind that the purpose is not to come up with the “right” score. There is no such thing. There are only human responses to writing. Even Shakespeare speaks more to some people than to others. The purpose is to generate discussion that deepens everyone’s understanding of what makes writing work. Those lessons translate into stronger performance as students try new approaches in their own work.

6. Follow up on summer writing! Did you think we forgot? We didn’t! Just before the summer break, we posted a number of suggestions for keeping writing skills strong throughout the summer (see our “Thinking Like a Writer” post, published 5/28/14). They included such things as—
• Nominating favorite books, authors, passages, etc.
• Keeping a journal
• Conducting an interview
• Building your own quiz
• Trying something new in the world of writing
• Writing to an author
• Writing a letter to anyone
• Searching out 10 (or more) conventional errors
• Creating “found” poetry
• Trying photo journalism
• Writing post cards

If you or your students tried any of these things (or something you came up with), you’ll want to follow up with discussions, oral readings, bulletin board displays, podcasts, or anything invention dictates. Redwoods4

Coming up on Gurus . . .
A colleague wrote a letter recently in which he said, “I spent a whole weekend correcting students’ work, and you know what they did? They threw the papers in the trash. This is getting discouraging!” No kidding. And he’s not the only one getting discouraged. We’ve tackled this issue before—teaching conventions without wearing out the red pen. We think it’s worth revisiting as Common Core testing becomes more prevalent and the emphasis on strong editing skills compels some teachers to seek out shortcuts. Don’t panic! Instead, drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas for actually teaching conventions, not just correcting them.

Meantime, we hope you enjoyed a good summer. Thanks for coming back! Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops on teaching writing for the 21st Century, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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