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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reading Recommendations

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

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

between the world and meroomghost maporphan master's son

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

 

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

 

snakes, alligators, and broken hearts

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

Genre: Memoir

Ages: Upper elementary and middle school

 Fire Birds! cover

Summary

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

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

The art of memoir

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

 

In the Classroom

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

animal dadsleaving homepocket babiesThe Deep Sea Floordouble eaglelizards2Sneed 4

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

 

 

 

London . . . and Letters

Happy New Year! (from Vicki)

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

We’re going!

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

Home Base

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

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Trekkie, but beautiful!

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

That's right--this IS the shower.

That’s right–this IS the shower.

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

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

Big Red

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

Crossing London Bridge

Crossing London Bridge

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

 

A Touch of Shakespeare

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

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

Perhaps the world's most iconic stage.

Perhaps the world’s most iconic stage.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine, Candles, Kipling, and Dickens

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

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

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

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

 

What Acrophobia?

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

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some Thoughts About Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 vicki_jeff_small

Reading Recommendations

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

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

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___ Sharks live in the ocean.

___ Sharks have many teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

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

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

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

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

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

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

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

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For more information about their work, be sure to visit them at www.stevejenkinsbooks.com.

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

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

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

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

Dear mole rat:                                   

Have you ever

thought about getting braces?

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

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

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

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

In the Classroom: How to Swallow a Pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

(BTW–the image is NOT from the book.)

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How to Sew Like a Tailorbird

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

1) Choose a leaf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Classroom: Creature Features

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

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

Dear mandrill:

Why is your nose so colorful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

 

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

Genre: Teacher resource book

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

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

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

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

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

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Background

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

1. Why Read?

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

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

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

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

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

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

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.

Divorce.

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

Divorce.

Secrets.

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

Divorce.

The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Writing:

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

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

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

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

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

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

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

Unprepared

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

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

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

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

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

Your Birthday in History

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

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

Argumentative Writing:

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

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

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

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

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

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s Butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

#1—Do not over-model

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

(Page 137)

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

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About the author . . .

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

No More “Us” and “Them”: Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect. 2012. Written by Lesley Roessing. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 126 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource book

Focus: Encouraging diversity and multicultural sensitivity among middle school students (but fully adaptable for other age groups)

Special features: Exceptional bibliography of resources, numerous charts for in-class use

No More Us and Them

Summary

The beauty of diversity. The power of diversity. You’ll feel it when you read No More “Us” and “Them.” Lesley Roessing’s remarkable little book takes us into a world where mutual respect is transformed from a vague goal into touchable, do-able reality. At the beginning of the year, students are strangers, wary of one another, and viewing differences as assorted manifestations of that dreaded label “weird.” By the end of the year, they have become a community, unearthing commonalities they didn’t know existed, celebrating the very differences they once mistrusted or maligned, and recognizing the many ways in which diversity strengthens a group. This all sounds a little magical, granted. It’s anything but. In fact, it takes a lot of determination, hard work, organizational design, and heart to open students’ eyes so wide that they see their peers, the world, and indeed themselves differently. Teacher and author Lesley Roessing is more than up to the task. She understands how middle school students think and learn, and she charts a path other teachers can follow. Wait, though—will there be time for that in this age of standards and ongoing testing? Yes, actually. This isn’t a new curriculum. This is a way of teaching that integrates beautifully with existing curriculum, and helps middle school educators make the best use possible of current literature, discussions that teach and promote thinking skills, collaborative projects, and more. As you read Lesley’s story and devour her recommendations, you will think, this could be my story, too. I could do this. I can almost guarantee you’ll want to try. Because just think what students could accomplish if they left middle school curious and unafraid, looking forward to what new experiences, travels, and friendships could teach them.

 Features to Notice

1. A foundational philosophy—and a stand against bullying. Roessing’s book opens with a strong Introduction. If you’re like many readers, you’ll be tempted to skip it so that you can get right to the heart of things. Don’t skip this intro. It lays the foundation for everything that follows—and remember, this book is short. You can easily read it in an evening, and that’s good because you may want to read it more than once. The Introduction explains the concept of “otherizing,” a word that now appears in the Urban Dictionary, and refers to the process of separating ourselves from those we perceive as different in some way—any way at all will do. Otherizing is important because it’s often the basis for bullying, a common problem in middle school (and at all levels, for that matter). According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, almost a third of all children between the ages of 12 and 18 admit to being bullied, and nearly two thirds have witnessed an incident. In some locations, as many as ten percent of students fear being bullied so much that they skip school to avoid it, and reports of headaches, stomach aches, loss of appetite, anxiety, aggression, and depression are common. So—how do we stop bullying? According to Roessing, we have several options. We can create a sense of community. We can encourage students themselves, when they witness bullying, to simply say, “Stop it.” Surprisingly, this simple act often brings an end to the bullying in as little as ten seconds. And we can stretch students’ sense of “us.” In other words, we help them to see that the group of “insiders” is not tiny and exclusive, as they’d thought, but expansive and inclusive, ultimately enfolding everyone—including them.

2. Practicality, activities, things to do Monday. Within the same Introduction, Roessing lays out her goal for the book: “This book endeavors to outline ideas for strategies and activities that can be integrated into existing curricula and in lessons that meet curricular standards” (xxii). Indeed. The book opens with ideas for helping students get to know one another better right on Day 1. It comes full circle by the end, closing with a complementary activity to help students see how far they’ve come. In between, Roessing shares a multitude of activities designed to build students’ awareness and increase their comfort in working with one another. You’ll notice that activities are not restricted to the language arts class. Math, science, PE, art, social studies, and history teachers are all encouraged to become involved. Those who like detail will appreciate the many lists and charts that make it easy to see just how to put a lesson together.

3. Getting started. As Lesley herself says, “A community is built cumulatively, one activity at a time” (xxiii). That said, guiding students in their “progression from seeing sameness to valuing diversity” seems like a big, bold task, to say the least. Where does a teacher begin? Roessing reminds us that we usually feel more comfortable around people with whom we have things in common. The problem is, we don’t always see those commonalities because they’re not obvious. We have to draw them out. Roessing begins with simple activities like sharing names and interests. Careful readers will notice that students do more than just list things they like to do. In small groups, they discuss sports, food, hobbies, people, school subjects they love or do not love, and more. Name signs stay on desks, so people can address one another in a personal, proper way. They get a sense that what they’re learning about their peers is important. It’s information to remember and to build on. Other introductory activities increase students’ knowledge of who is good at soccer or math, who can make homemade pasta or bread, who has visited New York, raises dogs, or can change a tire. Students learn things about one another they have never known. The introductory activities culminate with completion of “I Am” and “We Are” poetry, in which students share hopes, fears, anxieties, dreams, whatever they’re willing to put out there. Verbs can be changed, but the basic poetry format goes something like this (greatly shortened from Roessing’s original):

I am . . . an eighth grade student brand new to this school.

I wonder . . . if I’ll survive this year.

I hear . . . a voice in my head saying, “You’ll never pass math.”

I see . . . someone I’d like to make friends with, if only I weren’t so shy.

I want . . .

I pretend . . .

I worry . . .

I cry . . .

I understand . . .

I dream . . .

I try . . .

I am . . . Sara, an extraordinary eighth grader.

When students finish their poems, they engage in choral reading, reading selected lines they feel comfortable sharing. “Without actually pointing it out,” Roessing tells us, “the class can detect how much richer the poem is when most students have something different to say” (9). The journey has begun.

Introductory Name signs

4. Building on similarities. The next few weeks are all about discovering more similarities. Roessing wisely calls on Homeroom teachers to provide, if possible, time for discussion of common interests—favorite films, games, foods, hobbies, classes, books, places to visit. Students can even play short card games or board games if the Homeroom period is long enough to permit it. In language arts classes, students compose poems for two voices, sharing personal thoughts about what they love or look forward to most (See pages 16-21 for elaborate examples of this). In math class, they create graphs to show such things as the percentage of students who prefer pepperoni pizza over mushroom or other toppings. In science class, students do a “what if” exercise, in which they imagine themselves as one element on the periodic table. Iron? Hydrogen? Or—they might imagine themselves as one planet in the universe. Mars? Venus? Jupiter? In a foreign language class, Roessing suggests exploring the origins of names, noticing for example that Sean, Evan, Ian, Juan, Hans, Giovanni, and Jean (along with many others) are all variants of “John.”

In social studies, students explore origins, giving them an opportunity to examine one another’s heritage. Lesley shares a poem titled “Back in the ‘Hood,” where “hood” refers both to her first neighborhood and to childhood itself. Her own example and those of two students—too long to reprint here—are stunning. Here’s my own—inspired by Lesley’s activity—just the first three stanzas:

           I am from tag and tug-of-war,

           Hide-and-seek with a babysitter I didn’t know was 80,

           Building forts from construction scraps,

           Skating on frozen ponds lit only by moonlight.

 

           I am from birch trees plucked from swamps,

           Fresh mowed grass and fragrant lilacs,

           Running through sprinklers to cool off on hot days,

           Late night movies and hot buttered popcorn.

          

           I am from paddling canoes over northern lakes,

           Cutting sturdy Christmas trees with numb fingers,

           Riding horses over fields that knew no fences,

           Licking homemade fudge from a wooden spoon . . .

Enough . . . This review isn’t about me. I’m including this smidgeon of poetry to make a point. Lesley’s exercises are simply irresistible. That, to me, is one of the overwhelming strengths of the book. As you read through her suggestions, and see the sample poems for two voices or the ’hood poems, you’ll find yourself—if you’re like me—drawn in, engaged, composing lines in your head even as you read. You’ll find yourself imagining the fun you will have doing these activities with your students, and sharing snapshots from your own world as you do so. By the way, Roessing suggests allowing ample time for this exploration of similarities: “Throughout the first months of the year, all classes can incorporate a few experiences that allow students to discover their similarities and, therefore, work together that much more effectively and collaboratively” (33).

5. A new metaphor. America, we’ve been told, is a melting pot. But is that the best metaphor for Twenty-First Century thinking? Roessing suggests that Oscar Handlin’s metaphor of America as an orchestra (from “America: A World of Difference,” 1986) may be more fitting. Chapter 3 explores this concept in some depth, showing ways of engaging students in the “orchestra” discussion by having them envision the composition of an orchestra and relating that vision to America’s population. An orchestra comprises numerous instruments, but together they make music that none could replicate alone. Many other metaphors are possible, too—America as a puzzle, bouillabaisse, painting, collage, crayon box, garden, and so on. Your students might come up with their own ideas, as well as their own notions of how they fit into the larger picture. Seeing America as a garden, one student imagined herself as a bee, another as a butterfly, another as a shrub sheltering the flowers from the sun. As Roessing so fittingly points out, America has grown remarkably in complexity since the melting pot metaphor first took hold: Our great grandparents may have shared one nationality, ethnicity, and religion, but we, their descendants, are typically of multiple nationalities, ethnicities, and religions (37).

 6. Whole-class collaboration. Within a few weeks, students have introduced themselves to one another in several ways, and they’re getting to know one another—but to strengthen the bond, Roessing sets up ways for them to work together. Any complex whole-class project will work here, but the one she recommends is the Home Front Fair because it involves engaging multiple intelligences. Think about it. Students know one another the way you might know new neighbors who moved in a few weeks ago and share your passion for gardening and bridge. But maybe you don’t yet know whether they are musical, kinesthetic, visual and spatial, linguistic, or naturalists. Are they like Maya Angelou, Warren Buffet, Frank Lloyd Wright, Norah Jones, Steve Jobs—or Jane Goodall? Time to find out. The complexity of this project defies summation in a few words, but let me give you a few favorite highlights, and I’ll ask you to imagine the various things students learn from their participation—and the many, many standards that are addressed as they do so:

  •  The teacher provides a brief overview of how America contributed to World War II on the Home Front.
  • With the teacher’s help, students explore the theory of multiple intelligences, based on Howard Gardner’s research.
  • Students (using self-reflection and the Teele Inventory) determine their own strengths among possible kinds of intelligence. (For many, it is stunningly eye opening to discover strengths they never recognized in themselves when they looked on “intelligence” as a mysterious one-dimensional force.)
  • To allow application of all intelligences, students construct a model Home Front in three parts: a USO canteen, a live radio broadcast, and a general store (all of which would have contributed in some way to America’s war effort in the early 1940s).
  • The students form three groups, and assign roles based on their identified intelligences. For example, the board of directors might involve persons with interpersonal intelligence. Those with linguistic skills might write scripts or advertisements for the radio. The musically inclined would perform. Those with visual-spatial skills could be designers for the general store, while those with the math skills would manage the books.
  • Over the next few weeks, students research their component of the Fair, preparing for a presentation to the larger community. This research involves multiple interviews along with reading. As Roessing states, “Everything created, worn, said, and done should be based on research and cited on note cards” so that it can be verified (44).The beauty of a complex project like this one is that it offers students opportunities to meet standards requirements across a broad spectrum of skills—research, group collaboration, knowledge of history, reading and writing, speaking and listening, technology, and more. In addition, students also learn that working as a team magnifies learning at every stage. And finally, as parents and other relatives visit the fair, provide interviews, or offer artifacts for display, the bond between school and community is strengthened immeasurably.

7. “Making stone soup.” Most of us have heard some version of the universal folk tale in which hungry visitors to a village beg for food, and finding none, proceed to boil stones in water to make stone soup. Gradually, each member of the village contributes something small—a carrot here, an onion there—until the stone soup turns into real soup. “When each person has something to add, no matter how little, it makes the end product superior” (p. 50). The Stone Soup tale is the basis for small-group collaboration, a concept embraced in many classrooms, and now in many workplaces as well, where employees are often assigned to teams for purposes of completing a project. The idea is not that everyone does a little of everything, but rather—like the stone soup villagers—that each person makes a significant contribution based what he or she does best.

Roessing outlines several options for small-group collaboration, including (my favorite) the design of a town, city, village, or hamlet of any type. Students determine the town’s size and location, map it, and lay out basics: industries, commercial enterprises, schools, hospitals, roadways, recreation centers, and so forth. Each student then assumes the role of a prominent member of the town, and creates an original short story with that member as a protagonist. Combining their individual stories, they build a book, with each student not only serving as a contributing author, but also taking on a specialized writing task—document designer, illustrator, dialogue coach, reviser, editor.

Other small group collaborative projects involve the creation of newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, and so forth. Small-group collaboration intensifies the mutual respect and interdependence that is established through whole-class collaboration. Students find that teamwork builds learning. Yes, there are times not to work together—during testing, for example. Students quickly learn to respect that. But teaming is not cheating. On the contrary, it is a simultaneously efficient and demanding approach to learning, in which everyone must contribute by speaking, listening, sharing knowledge, and coaching. No sitting on the sidelines. Desks in rows can encourage aloneness and silence. Desks in circles cannot.

8. The class where “Everyone is an expert.” Do you know your own students’ special areas of expertise? If you’re like most teachers, you can probably say yes regarding some of your students—but probably not all. Chapter 5 provides several fascinating ways to uncover students’ specialties. Oh, and as a teacher, you get to participate, too.

One first step is to fill out a personal survey, asking what you know a lot about with respect to things like—

  • Hobbies and activities
  • Books
  • Movies and television
  • Travel and places to visit
  • Jobs
  • Sports
  • Foods
  • Fitness
  • Animals

. . . and more. Together, you and your students can brainstorm additions to this list. As Roessing has discovered, areas of expertise are unpredictable, to say the least: “In one classroom, a student showed ferrets in competitions; another was a skateboarding champion. The quiet girl in the back of the room had a black belt in karate, and two students had snakes as pets and now someone with whom to discuss the trials and tribulations of snake feeding” (62).

Expertise is sometimes highly focused. Roessing has discovered that students in a writing class like to know the go-to person for advice on something as precise as comma placement, effective use of a spell-check program, proofreading, crafting attention-getting leads, coming up with vivid details, or scanning the Web. In math class, there might be an expert in long division, square root calculation, graph interpretation, or a hundred other things. Parallel areas of expertise exists regarding any content area, and knowing them gives immeasurable self-esteem to the identified experts, while providing a built-in reason for others to seek them out.

9. Every Day Is Multicultural Day. Many schools have a Multicultural Day or Multicultural Week, when the customs, foods, clothing, and attributes of various cultures are celebrated. Roessing suggests, however, that by restricting celebration to just one day or week, instead of making it an ongoing part of the curriculum, we tend—however inadvertently—to emphasize the “otherness” of the very cultures we choose to focus on. She also points out that such celebrations often highlight differences rather than commonalities: We eat this; they eat that. She suggests that instead of having students bring in random foods from several cultures, it might be “more advantageous to have students make or bring in foods from different cultures that are similar and investigate the reason for the differences” (68). She cites Norah Dooley’s picture book series: Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Brings Noodles, and Everybody Serves Soup (all referenced in the accompanying bibliography).

Multicultural literature is a natural entree into a broader world. You will love (I did) Roessing’s proposed “diversity chart,” which helps students track the divergent literature they read by noting not only differences in race or ethnicity, but also diversity with respect to socioeconomic status, religion, exceptionality, geography, age, and more.

It’s no surprise that multicultural studies are not only for language arts. It’s vital for students to recognize the contributions made by various cultures to math, science, art, theater, music, sports, history, and other areas. As Roessing points out, “Young students tend to think that whatever they study originated in the United States and, unless they study the specific race or ethnicity of the inventor, by default he, or she, is a member of the predominant culture” (70). She goes on to cite just a few examples that probably not many students would correctly match up: coffee from Yemen, the calendar from Egypt, gunpowder, printing, and stirrups from China, dentistry from India.

Did you know that there are over 1,500 variants of the Cinderella tale from around the world? Roessing takes advantage of this dazzling fact by having students, in groups, read several variations of their choice and compare and contrast them using a wide range of criteria. Roessing’s detailed plan will guide you through this multi-faceted lesson that can culminate in something as simple as an oral presentation—or as complex as a scripted play involving stage and costume design. At the very least, students have a chance to see how certain motifs—strong heroine, impossible task, a social occasion (and the opportunity it provides!), wretched villains—are handled across various cultures.

Cnderella 3

In case you’re thinking that looking up 1,500 Cinderella variants will be a heady task, fear not. Roessing has done most of the work for you. They’re listed in a handy appendix that even categorizes them geographically, and includes some modern U.S. variations you may recognize, such as Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson.

In this same wonderful chapter, you’ll find infinitely helpful guides to script writing and costume/prop design—just in case stage production is the favorite presentation mode for some of your students.

10. Many ways to read. Once upon a time, teachers assigned books and students read them. Everyone read the same book and answered the same questions—all posed by the teacher, who presumably knew the right questions to ask. Reading has changed significantly.

Though students still read some books as a class, they also read in small groups or with partners, often choosing books from a list. In addition, they read articles, short stories, poems, essays. And many come up with questions they believe are significant, and answer them by writing essays and stories of their own. Older students read or listen to picture books, recognizing that increasingly, selections from this genre are aimed at their age group. Discussions of issues like bullying or body image may spill over into health classes, while biographies may be discussed in history or math, and books detailing the struggles of disenfranchised groups may become part of the social studies curriculum.

The short but wonderful Chapter 8, titled “Reading for Respect,” shows how all these approaches can be integrated within one classroom—or across the curriculum. Consider how much understanding is gained when five members of a book club read different books on bullying, then discuss how various authors treat this subject. The richness of such discussion is impressive, and the resulting presentation to the class as a whole is infinitely more interesting for other students than hearing about one book in isolation.

If you haven’t tried working with book clubs, this chapter will offer some guidance to get you started, and best of all, Roessing also provides an incredibly complete bibliography of resources emphasizing the issues and topics covered in the book—“tolerance, alienation, fitting in, bullying, acceptance, body image, self-respect, multiculturalism, building community, and respecting diversity” (105). Resources are categorized: picture books, short stories, essays and poetry, novels, memoirs, nonfiction self-help, periodicals, and books about games. It’s an impressive, easy-to-use list.

11. Ending the year—and coming full circle. Lesley Roessing describes a classroom scene in which a student comes across a photograph of a young woman wearing a series of neck rings to stretch her neck. “That’s different,” the student remarks (67), and it is her use of the word different that is so striking. By the close of the year, teachers are more likely to hear words like different, interesting, unusual or unique—in place of the pejorative weird. The former are words that convey respect. As we grow more respectful of others, we notice differences in a way that piques our curiosity and inspires us to learn more—instead of tempting us to ridicule what seems foreign or unexpected. How fitting that Roessing suggests closing this year of learning with activities that focus on respect.

The first is a favorite of mine, one I have done with both students and adults, always with remarkable and sometimes surprising results. Students choose an artifact from home that has special meaning for them and tell the story that goes with this artifact—its importance, origin, or meaning in their lives. Stories are translated into written form, and many are illustrated or even augmented by video. Though many students choose artifacts from ancestors or other cultures, some choose something as simple and basic as a stuffed animal or baby blanket. And here’s what’s interesting. Such trust has been built within this community that an object like a baby blanket is treated with the same respect as a rare sculpture. What matters is the student—and that student’s choice. Which brings us to the second closure activity . . .

The Ubuntu Project is indeed special, and I haven’t space here to even begin to do it justice. (As the saying goes, you must read the book.) According to a justice from the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Ubuntu “recognizes a person’s status as a human being, entitled to unconditional respect, dignity, value and acceptance from the members of the community such person happens to be part of” (p. 119). This definition gives us a beginning, but the concept of Ubuntu really defies translation. It is a fluid combination of respect, reverence, humaneness, and cultural appreciation.

The project, fittingly, asks students to read several pieces that support this philosophy, then provide their own personal interpretations of Ubuntu. They may do this through music, song, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, or any medium other than writing. The emphasis is on creativity—and risk. They are to take a chance, step away from safety, and trust that their community of learners will receive their interpretation with understanding.

Students also finish their year with a “We Are” poem that echoes the “I Am” poem written so long ago before they began this journey of abandoning otherizing and embracing respect. In addition, together they complete a capstone project, some work of art to leave at the school—a mosaic, mural, collage, etc. By this time, they have a lot to say.

Closing thoughts . . . I cannot recommend this book enough. I found it inspiring. Though tiny, it is filled with wisdom and insights on life, on teaching well, on making the most of meaningful literature, and on creating a culture based on respect within any classroom. What I could not help noticing is the way in which the activities presented here change not only external behavior, but the internal feelings of the players. I don’t want to say the students became different people because I don’t believe that’s true. Rather, I think they become what is possible, their best selves, unleashing the compassion, understanding, and humanity that was always there. I encourage you to spend time with this book. You’ll want to make Ubuntu part of your classroom, too.

Lesley2Teaching Cinderella 2

About the author . . .

Lesley Roessing was a middle school teacher for over twenty years. She is now Senior Lecturer in the College of Education and Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Armstrong State University in Savannah and serves as Editor of Connections, the GCTE journal. Lesley has written four books for teachers: The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities that Promote Peer Respect, Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed—The Sentences They Saved, and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core as well as articles for NCTE, ALAN, AMLE, and NWP. She works with K-12 pre-service and in-service teachers.

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Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Jeff will be offering his insights regarding a book titled In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher.

As you may have noticed, we’re featuring nonfiction writing this fall, and Vicki will be posting several reviews of incredible new nonfiction books for students throughout the fall.

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

 

Neighborhood Sharks. 2014. Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy. New York: Roaring Brooks Press. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book/chapter book

Ages: Aimed at fourth through eighth grades, though adults will also enjoy it

Awards: The Robert F. Sibert Award for most distinguished informational book for children; John Burroughs Riverby Award for Young Readers

Welcome Back, Gurus followers!

We’re opening the new school year by reviewing one of the best nonfiction picture books of 2014—Neighborhood Sharks. We highly recommend this multi-award winner, and think you and your students will applaud Katherine Roy’s unforgettable peek into the daily life of the great white.

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Summary

Great white sharks are arguably the most feared predators of the ocean. But how much do we really know about them? Not enough. In this visually stunning account, author/illustrator Katherine Roy takes us to the coastal waters off the Farallon Islands, where marine biologists tag, track—and yes, even name—great whites in an effort to learn more about their migrations, hunting behaviors, and life spans. Graphic, realistic paintings depict sharks stalking and killing their preferred prey, pinnipeds. Highly detailed text and diagrams help us understand precisely how the anatomy of the shark makes it such a successful predator—and why its prey so rarely escapes. The book is highly focused, zeroing in on the ongoing spectacle of shark versus seal. While the text doesn’t reveal everything about the great white, it is an eye opening, dramatic depiction of how this giant fish hunts.

Neighborhood Sharks is well-researched and extremely informative about its targeted subject. Scientific text is effectively blended with riveting narrative about shark-seal encounters, and this back and forth makes the book both engaging and instructive. It offers an outstanding example of how essentially informational text can weave in just the right amount of narrative to bring factual information to life. Roy’s lavish paintings put us right at the heart of the blood pumping action.

Note: This book is an excellent example of an emerging genre, picture books aimed at older readers.

 

In the Classroom

 1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. You will notice that the text includes a number of biological terms—e.g., carcharodon carcharias, the great white’s scientific name. You may wish to check on pronunciations of these terms before sharing the book or portions of it aloud. Or ask students (assuming they have access to a computer) to look up the pronunciations and share them with the class. A word of caution: The book contains several graphic representations of sharks killing seals. They are paintings, not photographs, but very young readers may still find them disturbing. We recommend using discretion when considering sharing the book with primary students.

2. Background. How many of your students have seen the Farallon Islands—or know where they are? Find them on a map so that students can picture the setting for the book. Have any of your students seen a great white shark—in an aquarium or even in the ocean? How many have seen them in videos? What do your students know currently about great whites? Consider making a two-part list: beliefs about great whites and known facts about great whites. Talk about the difference between what we know and what we believe we know. What are our sources for each kind of “knowledge”?

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students find great whites interesting? Based on their response, did Katherine Roy choose a good subject for her book? How many of your students find great whites terrifying? This is a common response among the American public. Take a few minutes to discuss where this fear comes from. To what extent is it encouraged (or refuted) by books, films, and the news media? Is the fear justified? (Consider having students write a short opinion paragraph on this topic.)

 4. Presenting the Text. The engaging nature of Neighborhood Sharks makes it a standout choice for sharing aloud. And you can enhance students’ listening experience significantly by sharing illustrations on a document projector. You will also find this kind of visual sharing invaluable when referring to the author’s anatomical charts. The book runs about 40 pages, but the spreads are highly varied. Some pages contain only a line or two of text, while others run several hundred words. Since the book is divided into chapters, that’s a simple way to break up the oral reading, sharing up to two or three chapters per session. You will also find that the text is content rich, meaning that almost every line provides new information of some kind. From an instructional standpoint, asking students to absorb all information in one reading may be a challenge.

 5. The Lead—and a Genre Shift. We often think of a lead as the opening line or the first two or three lines of any piece. How long is the lead in Roy’s book? Where does it end? As the writer shifts from the lead to the main text, what changes in genre do you notice? (Note to the teacher: The lead in this book is a short narrative featuring a chase scene in which one shark pursues one seal. The narrative is fast moving, told largely through illustrations. About ten pages in, the writing suddenly shifts to informational as the writer begins to offer details about the Farallon Islands, the elephant seals, and the great whites. It is important for students to recognize this shift in genre because the author is writing for different purposes—first to get us hooked on the topic, and second to provide the background information we need to appreciate the shark’s hunting skills.)

 6. Central Topic/Theme. Many books have been written about sharks and about the great whites in particular. What is the main idea of this book? Is the author trying to tell us a little bit about many aspects of a shark’s life—or a lot about one particular aspect? Is this an effective approach? Why?

 7. Organizational Structure. The organization of any piece of writing is directly linked to the scope of the topic. How did Roy’s decision to narrow her topic influence the organizational structure of the book? (In other words, how different would the organization look if Roy had set out to tell us everything she knew about sharks?) To help students answer this question, use the document projector to skim through the chapter titles one by one, asking as you go, “What main point does the writer make in this particular chapter—and how does it relate to the central theme (sharks as hunters) of the book?” Does the author do a good job of making sure every single chapter contributes something to her main point?

8. Details. As noted earlier, Roy’s book might be described as “information dense,” meaning that as readers, we are continually learning something new. As you go through the book, make a list of details they consider either new or particularly interesting. When you come to the end of the book, ask “How much did we learn?” Is our opportunity to learn new information one of the criteria for good informational writing?

9. Audience. We have identified this book as most appropriate for students in grades four through eight—while acknowledging that older readers may well find it interesting as well. Do your students agree with this assessment? What sorts of readers, in their opinion, would probably enjoy this book most? Are there readers for whom it would be less appropriate? Why?

10. Graphics. In the chapters titled “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” and “Farallon Soup” Roy uses graphics to carry part of the message. Show these on a document projector, and discuss what they add to a reader’s understanding of information presented in the text. When is it particularly important to use graphics? Notice in particular the sketch of a shark in the chapter titled “The Perfect Body.” Roy tells us that the shark’s pectoral fins provide lift like the wings of a jet. What other similarities between sharks and jets do your students notice, and why are they important?

11. Transitions. We often think of transitions as single words or expressions: however, nevertheless, in the meantime, the next day, and so on. Remind students how transitions link ideas or take us from one thought or event to another. Then, take a look at the final lines in the chapters titled “Hot Lunch,” “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” “High-Definition Vision,” and “Endless Teeth.” Do those final lines serve a transitional purpose? In what sense? What is their impact on the reader?

 12. Voice. How would your students describe the voice or tone of this book? Is it sophisticated, academic, formal, chatty, conversational, or–? Make a list of words they would use to describe what they hear. Then, identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to the tone of the book? Is it language, sentence length—or something else? Finally, is the tone right for this type of book and subject matter? How do they know?

13. Unanswered Questions, Research, and Informational Writing. Clearly Roy’s book doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about great whites—though we do learn a lot about their hunting behaviors. Make a list of questions readers still have at the end of this book. Then ask each student to choose one question and do some research that helps answer that question. They can do several things with this research: (1) Make an in-class display of most startling findings; (2) create a wiki about sharks to which all students contribute; (3) share findings orally in small groups and discuss which findings are most surprising or fascinating; (4) use findings as a basis for writing short informational pieces that together could form a book on sharks.

14. The Conclusion. Endings have a sound and feeling all their own. Just as we can tell when a film is about to end, we can sense when a book is drawing to a close. Where do your students think the ending for this book starts? (Note to the teacher: We consider the final three pages to be the ending. Do your students agree?) Good endings do many things—for example, leave us with something to think about, raise new questions, or create a lasting impression. What effect do your students think the ending of this book has on the reader?

15. Argument Writing. This book raises some controversial issues that could form a good basis for a written argument. First, in the chapter titled “Farallon Soup,” author Katherine Roy tells us that sharks are apex predators, who help maintain a healthy ecosystem by ridding the ocean of weaker animals and thereby allowing the healthier ones to pass on their genes to new generations. Yet some people might argue that predators such as the great white can pose significant danger to humans and some marine life. Which side offers the stronger argument? Should sharks ever be hunted—or should they be protected because of the benefits they offer to overall ocean health? Ask students to do some further research on this topic, and present a one- or two-page argument defending the side they feel is stronger. Second, in the final pages of the book, the author raises an important question: Can sharks survive another 200,000 years of human habitation on the earth? What do your students think? While we often think of great whites as threatening, is it really the other way around? Is it humans that threaten the sharks? Again, ask them to do further research and craft an argument supporting their conclusion.

16. The Nature of Research. A good argument depends on research. An assertion that is not backed by evidence is merely an opinion. It may be interesting, but it’s unlikely to convince thoughtful readers. Instead of just turning students loose to hunt down information, though, why not help them make a research plan that will likely result in truly useful information? First, consider whether there is anywhere in your area that you might make a field trip to learn about sharks. Even if a local aquarium doesn’t house sharks, there may be an expert who would talk with your students on site—or perhaps visit your classroom. You never know until you ask. Second, check out the resources listed in the back of Roy’s book. Under “Selected Sources” as well as “Further Reading” you’ll find films, books, and online resources recommended by the author. This list offers a treasure house for unearthing more details. Set some ground rules, too. How many resources are sufficient for a short informational report such as your students plan to write? Two? Three? Discuss this with your students and talk about how a writer knows when he/she has enough information to begin writing.

17. Illustrations. Not all informational books are illustrated like this one. If you are able to share the book through a document projector so that students can see the illustrations clearly, talk about what they add to the book’s overall impact. How different would this book be without them? Some reviewers (and some teachers) feel that illustrations primarily appeal to younger readers and that books aimed at an older audience should include minimal illustrations. Do your students agree with this perspective? Why or why not? You may choose to write opinion pieces about this.

 

 18. “Shark Up!” Check out those final pages of the book once more (where resources are listed), and you’ll find a short note from Katherine Roy titled “Shark Up!” Share this note aloud with students and talk about how Katherine Roy’s experience helps lend her book credibility. Should we expect this kind of direct, hands-on experience from most informational writers? How important is it when citing a source to know where and how the writer obtained information?

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki takes a look at Lesley Roessing’s groundbreaking book, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect. Many books claim to show students how to embrace diversity. This one actually does it. You will not want to miss this review.

Right on the heels of that post, Jeff will be offering his insights regarding a book titled In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We gained many new viewers over the summer and we welcome you all! We hope you’ll be a regular visitor here at Gurus throughout the coming year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

I’m going to be a travel writer in my next life. Travelers—regardless of where they go—never run out of writing topics.

My husband and I (with good friends from Nebraska) were lucky enough to visit Australia and New Zealand this past January and February. This was to be the trip of a lifetime, and it took us over eight years to plan it, save up, and make it happen. It was worth every moment of planning and every penny spent. If you’ve been lucky enough to go yourself, then you know. If not, I hope you get the chance.

In a Sunburned Country

In part, this trip was Bill Bryson’s fault. In 2000, Bryson wrote a book called In a Sunburned Country. I discovered it in an airport bookstore some years ago, and fell in love. This book was a gift from the voice gods. I laughed until I cried through most of it (making other airline passengers desperately jealous) and wished fervently that Bill lived nearby and would drop over now and then to chat. Most of all, I wished that I could somehow, some way, get to Australia. Among my favorite passages was this one (page 6), which I would go on to share in countless workshops, and which (I don’t doubt for a moment) prompted teachers across America to buy Bryson’s book (and perhaps, to plan their own visit down under):

[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.

Who could resist booking the next flight? I learned a great deal about Australia from In a Sunburned Country, but I also learned a thing or two about writing. Bryson doesn’t try to tell everything. He picks his moments and details carefully, and he never glosses things over as many travel writers do. Also, he never settles for big, sweeping generalities: e.g., Australia sure is vast! He has a knack for digging up the little known details—the toxic caterpillars, the attacking seashells.

Throughout our trip, I asked myself (as I was having the time of my life), Which of these experiences would I write about if I did my own travel book? Following are the six I chose. I’m presenting the “sweeping generalities” version first to emphasize the difference. (Students will often say things like, “I gave you details—I told you Australia was vast!”) What they don’t realize is, that’s an introductory comment that leaves readers wanting the story lurking underneath.

Highlight 1: Showering at Sea

The Sweeping View: Showering on a ship can be tricky!

The details . . .

We spent a few days cruising from Auckland in northern New Zealand down to Milford Sound, then across the Tasman Sea to Australia. One of the many things you learn while cruising is how to keep your balance when the floor is constantly moving. Another is to adapt to living in a small space. The truth is, most of us probably occupy far more space than we need throughout our lives, but at sea humans quickly learn to fit all essentials into a room of less than 200 square feet. And why not? It holds a bed, couch, two chairs, a television, storage cupboards, a closet, dresser and mirror, refrigerator, and bathroom with toilet, sink, shelving, and . . . a 2-foot by 2-foot shower.

IMG_0282Admittedly, unless you’re exceptionally slim, the shower is a tight fit. In fact, a better motivator to lose weight I’ve yet to experience. (Trying on tight swimsuits under fluorescent lighting is a poor second.) You don’t want to twirl around, and you don’t want to stick your elbows out. No vigorous lathering either. Within moments, you learn to keep your feet slightly apart and to keep one hand on the wall-mounted handle bar or one of the fixtures at all times. Lose your balance on a big wave, and you’ll get a nasty spurt of extremely hot or cold water or a mouthful of shampoo (if you’ve gotten that far). I had trouble only on the Indian Ocean sailing from Esperance to Perth, when we hit the largest waves of our trip. They’re unpredictable, and you cannot time them. (Wonderful for sleeping—not so good for standing in wet places.)

It isn’t easy getting shampoo out with one hand (because you’re holding on with the other); the trick I learned is to pre-loosen the cap prior to getting in. “Shower prep,” which became a new routine, included pre-loosening all shower product caps, turning the shower head so overly cold or hot water wouldn’t hit you directly—you do need to get in before you turn the shower on so you don’t wind up flooding the floor—and of course, placing your towel within easy reach, keeping in mind that lurching toward the sink is likely to be your exit style. If you drop the shampoo or shower gel while you’re still showering, you can bend over to get it (not recommended), or squat down (you have to let go of your “safety handle” though), or just wait until you’re done and retrieve it when you get out (the best option). I should mention that my husband and I both quickly learned to shower in under three minutes.

Highlight 2: Here Comes the Sun

The Sweeping View: Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound, and Milford Sound are beautiful, though seldom sunny.

The details . . .

“This is your captain, speaking to you from the bridge.” These words, in our captain’s soon-familiar Greek accent, greeted us daily, and were usually followed by a routine summation of our longitude, latitude and cruising speed. On one memorable occasion, though, the captain added these words—rarely heard by anyone at sea: “If Captain Cook had encountered this weather when he entered Dusky Sound, he would have named it something else.”

We entered Dusky Sound just at dawn, encountering clouds and mist—and were told this was typical, that the beauty of the area was due after all to the daily rain. It was still beautiful, especially when clouds opened just enough to let ethereal sunlight streak through. The ship slowed to a speed of 7 or 8 knots, creating a floaty, dreamlike feeling.

Within two hours, as if on cue, the clouds had all but departed, devoured by the sun. People who had been huddling in the top deck viewing room to keep dry now flooded the outer walkways, cameras and cell phones in hand. Getting a spot at the railing (any railing) became immediately difficult, and walking without blocking someone’s photographic shot of a lifetime was impossible. Beautiful spots are frequently described as breathtaking, but on this day, I learned the true meaning of that word. Gasps were literally audible everywhere, and people spoke in whispers, as if entering a sanctuary.

IMG_0404The captain later told us that in his 20 years of cruising the sounds (which he does multiple times per season), he had never, not even once, witnessed a day such as this, never seen azure blue skies in any of the fjords—and never expected to do so again in his lifetime. We’d been cautioned to wear jackets and sweaters. I never unpacked mine, and basking in the sun, was thankful for the thin shirt I’d bought on a whim in Honolulu before our flight.

The captain also mentioned that had it been raining, as per usual, we’d have seen many more waterfalls in this uninhabited paradise. I don’t think anyone missed them.

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Highlight 3: Criminal Justice

The Sweeping View: Australia was settled by convicts.

The details . . .

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison. (Bryson, page 6).

Our first stop in Australia was Sydney. Sydney is a feast for the senses. The harbor is a perpetual motion machine, filled with every sort of vessel imaginable from kayaks to cruise ships, with ferry boats of all sizes, yachts, catamarans, and sailboats all vying for space, juggling their way through an intricate mesh of oceanic right-of-way rules. Coffee. The aroma is everywhere. And (sorry, Starbucks) it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Almost good enough to skip the cream. Almost. (And if you ask for cream, you get whipped cream—ask for milk and you’re just as likely to get half and half, which is admittedly much better.) Music plays along the quays, and it is hauntingly good—everything from country to classical, right there on the walkways, with best guitarists, drummers, violin and base players imaginable. Breweries and pubs abound, all atmospheric and bustling with visitors and locals. That irresistible Aussie accent is everywhere, but there’s an intermingling of German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and other languages I didn’t quickly recognize. To say it’s picturesque is like describing Santa as a chap who favors red. It’s also overwhelming. So the best place to begin (especially for newbies like us) seemed to be an overview tour.

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As we quickly discovered, Aussie (pronounced OZ-ee in Australia, not Aw-see, as we Americans typically say) tour guides are extremely well-informed about history—British, American, and Australian. They laugh (good naturedly, never in a mean spirited way) at our inability to answer questions like, Who was Lafayette? A favorite topic (for them and for us as listeners) is how Australia got its start as a penal colony. I’d had a vague vision of this: killers, hoodlums, embezzlers and jewel thieves chained to ships, dumped on the rocks, and left to make their way as best they could. Amazingly, I got the rocks part right. And there is to this day a section of Sydney known as The Rocks, now filled with breweries, pubs, boutique shops and other touristy hangouts. But most of the story I got wrong. As it so happens, “convicts” in the bad old glory days of the UK were often imprisoned for such petty offenses as stealing a button. No kidding. As in What are you in for? Answer: Button theft. Most of these original settlers were anything but dangerous.

Originally, British convicts were sent to America. America got fed up with this practice, however, and told the UK in so many words to find another location for their deportees. “What about that big island way down south?” some Brit suggested, and the idea of settling Australia in this unconventional manner was born. It was not without its problems.

First off, the idea was not to imprison these convicts, but to put them to work—herding sheep or cattle, farming, manufacturing, and so on. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have a trade and knew nothing of farming or ranching. Being game isn’t enough when it comes to farming; you have to know what you’re doing. The early settlers began plowing fields and sowing seed in April, as they had in England. But the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed, so the first few crops were abysmal failures.

This state of affairs led to Plan B, requesting ONLY those convicts who had a trade or useful agricultural experience—including medical people, teachers, cooks, farmers, boot makers, blacksmiths, and so forth. (To this day, both Australia and New Zealand continue the practice of asking prospective immigrants to demonstrate precisely, and in elaborate detail, how they plan to contribute to the society’s economy before considering admittance. I know this because I asked—and yes, I did consider moving.) Being assigned to Australia became a sort of mark of achievement.

You may be wondering how it works to simply turn convicts loose to pursue their careers. Well, remember, most were not particularly menacing. Further, confinement wasn’t really necessary. There was no point in running away because (as Bill Bryson so clearly points out), survival outside the city limits was impossible. Of those few who did attempt escape, none survived. Not one.

You know how the story goes . . . if you’re not chomped by sharks or crocodiles . . . Oh, and we should also mention that Australia is home to some impressive spiders. Hold out your hand, fingers splayed. That’s about the size. Not to mention the snakes . . . and then there’s that lack of water . . .

Highlight 4: The Sydney Opera House

The Sweeping View: The Sydney Opera House is spectacular.

The details . . .

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The Sydney Opera House is impossible to overlook. Like Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo,” it simply exudes class and grace. It’s impossibly gorgeous from every angle. The first question our tour guide asked us, majestically swinging her arm in the direction of the roof: “What do these architectural features remind you of?” Wings, some said. Sails, others offered. Officially, they’re known as shells. Whatever you call them, photographers cannot get enough. The opera house may well be the most photographed landmark on earth.

The day we were lucky enough to visit, a lot was happening. In the Concert Hall, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing music from Faust. The Concert Hall also houses the world’s largest pipe organ; gleaming gold, it’s roughly the size of the average American living room. In the Joan Sutherland Theater, singers and actors were preparing to stage another production. Usually, groups are not allowed to enter either theater because groups make noise—and even the tiniest noise distracts both actors and musicians. For some reason (maybe we looked unusually orderly) we got to go in both. (First sun in the fjords—and now this.)

We put on headphones to hear the tour guide, who could not raise her voice above a whisper. The acoustics (thanks to the lush Australian birch wood interior) are such that the slightest breath, shuffle of feet, or flick of a gum wrapper can be heard throughout either of the main theaters, so we were firmly cautioned not to speak at all and to step as quietly as if sneaking past a sleeping tiger.

One or two at a time, we slipped sideways into the upper balcony of the Joan Sutherland Theater through a black velvet curtain so enormous and heavy you expected at any moment to encounter the Phantom of the Opera. Upon entering, we had to quickly (and silently) pull the curtain closed behind us to shut out all light. The theater itself (except for the stage) was so dark and steep that I felt certain I would trip on the invisible stairs. Inch by inch, toe by toe, I felt my way up to a cushy seat in the top balcony, my husband insistently tugging me along (He can see in the dark). Though I was as far back and high up from the stage as you could get, I could see and hear every word the director spoke as he moved actors about the set. The sets, incredibly elaborate and colorful, are done on a huge elevator platform a full floor below the stage, then raised up for each performance. This ingenious approach allows the Opera House to schedule, say, Madame Butterfly for the afternoon, then perhaps Faust for the evening—simply by rolling a new platform into place and raising it to stage height.

IMG_0545After exiting as silently as possible, we went outdoors for a close-up look at those magnificent shells. That iconic white roof is not painted, as many people think. It’s composed of 1,000,050 tiles—from snowy white to mellow cream. They reflect light in such a way as to give the roof its perpetually dazzling appearance, whether in sun or the glow of floodlights that illuminate it every evening. Unexpectedly, the tiles are cool to the touch, even under the intense heat of Australia’s famously relentless sun.

The Opera House, we learned, was designed by world-renowned architect Jørn Utzon of Denmark. His design was one of one of 233 entries in a competition, and ironically enough, was at first rejected. Several architects, however, kept circling back to Utzon’s design, seeing it as more visionary than bizarre, and in 1957, he was proclaimed the winner. Whatever they saw in Utzon’s design was later recognized by others, and in 2003, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The citation read as follows:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is [Utson’s] masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.

Indeed, for many it is a symbol of creativity itself. Receipt of this well-deserved prize had to be bittersweet, however, for it followed years of controversy and tension between Utzon and the SOHEC (Sydney Opera House Executive Committee). Ultimately, some funds intended to pay his workers were withheld, and Utzon resigned from the project—though he was later brought back as a consultant. It seems some people are irreplaceable after all. Sadly, though, he never got to see (except in photos) the fully completed building that was undoubtedly his work of genius. Utzon was not even present at the opening and dedication by Queen Elizabeth in October of 1973. The Opera House was originally slated to cost $7 million and scheduled to be finished in 1963. It was not completed until ten years later, and wound up costing a whopping $102 million.

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We left Sydney at night, when (to my eye) the harbor is at its most exquisite. I felt a genuine physical ache as I watched the harbor landmarks shrink and the lights dim in the ship’s wake. The last thing I recall seeing as we pulled out of port was the Sydney Opera House, stunningly situated between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Royal Botanical Gardens. A proper setting for an empress.

Highlight 5: A Living Dinosaur

The Sweeping View: The cassowary is a very large bird, descended from dinosaurs.

The details . . .

Prior to visiting Australia, I doubt I’d have known much about cassowaries were it not for a remarkable book called Birdology by one of my all-time favorite authors, Sy Montgomery. The whole book is fascinating, but I was especially intrigued by the chapter “Birds Are Dinosaurs,” which details Montgomery’s research on cassowaries, and her encounters with them in Queensland. In her introduction to this remarkable creature (page 49), she explains,

To the nimble likes of predatory Velociraptors, birds owe their speed and their smarts. To dinosaurs, they owe their otherworldly appeal—and as well, surely, some of their transcendent mystery and beauty. For this is one of the great miracles of birds, greater, perhaps, than that of flight: when the chickens in my barnyard come to my call, or when I look into the sparkling eye of a chickadee, we are communing across a gap of more than 300 million years.

Cassowaries are big. By bird standards, huge. The largest can weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Like ostriches, they walk (stride is more accurate) or run. They cannot fly (anymore—they could once), and if they could fly, it’s daunting to imagine the wings that would be required. Happily, they are mostly vegetarian, largely because they have no teeth. They do stomp and devour both lizards and rats. They also forage for berries and seeds—and have been seen gazing at butterflies, just before eating them. Though they don’t seek out larger prey, they are more than capable of defending themselves, thanks to sharp killing claws (very reminiscent of Jurassic Park). When it feels threatened, the cassowary (which already towers over most creatures, including shorter people), can leap an impressive five feet into the air and come down with deadly force, using this lethal claw like a knife, eviscerating whatever is unfortunate enough to be standing too close. In fact, these birds have been known to kill people, though lethal attacks are rare. They are highly protective of their chicks and eggs, and cassowaries will charge and even strike if they perceive that their young are in danger or their nests are about to be robbed. Interestingly, it’s the male that guards the eggs and raises the chicks to adolescence—when they are evicted. Once the nest is built and the eggs laid, the female leaves home. (Yes, I do know what you’re thinking—and you’re not the first.)

Unless you live in the Queensland rain forest, the odds of glimpsing a cassowary in the wild are small. We did, though—through the window of our tour bus. This bird had just strolled casually across the road right in front of the bus, unaware and fearless. They don’t imagine anything can hurt them (though whether this is the result of confidence or simple lack of imagination I can’t say), and most cassowaries that die in the wild are killed by buses or cars, though occasionally one is done in by exceptionally ferocious dogs (When dogs and cassowaries meet, the odds are in the bird’s favor).

IMG_1077I didn’t get a photo that day—wrong side of the bus. But I did come eye to eye with several cassowaries at a wildlife sanctuary outside Sydney, en route to the famous Blue Mountains. I must say, there is no warmth in that gaze. None. This is clearly not a pet, nor does this bird exhibit the slightest interest in or curiosity about humans. They notice us the way we might notice, say, an ant. Unless we happen to be roadblocks (not advised), potential threats or conveyors of food, we are simply elements of the ever changing landscape. There is no sign on the cassowary compound saying “Don’t touch,” but I doubt most people would need to be warned. Those ancient eyes are warning enough.

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Highlight 6: Hugging (mostly thinking of hugging) a wallaby

The Sweeping View: Wallabies are adorable!

And now for the details . . .

Kangaroos are masters of their domain, and as such, command attention and respect. They become tame quickly if food is about, and more than once at various roadstops we were warned not to approach too close or attempt to pet them. Kangaroos can be extremely aggressive, even hostile. They are impatient if food isn’t forthcoming. They don’t bite—they kick. And when they kick, they mean it, and they can cause serious injury.IMG_1127

Wallabies, on the other hand, are extremely shy creatures. They are less than half the size of even small kangaroos, and look downright cuddly. If they were stuffed toys, you’d want to take them home even if you didn’t have any kids. Like kangaroos, they love treats and enjoy being hand fed. But unlike kangaroos, they don’t demand anything, and will wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . making sure you are friendly.

The Featherdale Wildlife Park (near the Blue Mountains) that housed the cassowaries also had wallabies—many of them. Unlike the cassowaries, which are confined (thank heavens), the wallabies roam freely, and you can talk to them, pet them (if you’re lucky enough to get that close), and feed them. The sanctuary staff don’t want them eating pretzels and jelly beans (sold to tourists in great quantities), so they stuff “wallaby food” (a dried, seedy grass) into ice cream cones. You hold a cone, and if you’re lucky, a wallaby will come up and eat from it.

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It took a lot of coaxing to get that first wallaby to approach me. I knelt down low, talking to it in much the way you might talk to a kitten or puppy. He was very unsure, but in time, he did come up to me and take that first nibble. Wallabies are careful eaters. They don’t take big bites, and they chew for a long while. This helps a small amount of food last long enough that you can reach out ever so slowly and stroke that divinely soft fur—softer than mink. Their front paws are like tiny hands, and they will reach out to hold the food as they take a bite.

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When nothing dire happened to Wallaby #1, the others gained courage. In moments, I had two feeders, then three, and finally four. I would have had more, but by then I was out of food. Indeed, one of the wallabies reached out and took the final remnant in his “hands.” I discovered quickly that wallabies (at least these wallabies—conditioned through months of cone training) don’t really favor dried grass. Who can blame them? They prefer the cones, and eat that part almost exclusively. Also, they have very sharp front teeth, top and bottom (needed in the wild to munch grasses), and though they are anything but aggressive, you do want to be careful where you place your fingers on the cone. On a trip of incredible adventures, it was unquestionably my wallaby encounter that stood out most.

In conclusion . . .

I could have written about so many other things, among them . . .

  • Watching kangaroos bound over the fields outside Melbourne.
  • Seeing a mother crocodile guard her nest along the Daintree River.
  • Dealing with a sink (in Port Douglas) that would not behave, and continuously left us soaking wet.
  • Having toilets on board ship cease flushing (luckily, this didn’t last too long).
  • Eating heavenly gelato on Manly Beach—after riding the half-hour ferry from Sydney.
  • Having residents of Auckland not only direct us but actually guide us to a local drugstore. The people of New Zealand are not just courteous and friendly, they’re sensitive and kind. All the time.
  • Learning that Australian snakes, while deadly, are also shy and will depart when they sense vibrations from your footsteps—and then being told to “stay on the path” anyway. Shy. Not going to test that theory.
  • Circling Alice Springs for over an hour because our plane was “too heavy to land” and we had to burn up heavy fuel.
  • Landing in Alice Springs and wishing I were still in the air conditioned plane (just kidding).
  • Walking through Hyde Park to the Botanical Gardens and experiencing the only downhill moving walkway I’ve ever encountered—so fast you are literally launched off the end.
  • Riding the world’s steepest railway in the scenic Blue Mountains.
  • Looking up into the sky far out at sea and realizing I had never, ever really seen stars . . .

. . . and too many more things to list. I chose these six because they’re the ones I keep reliving. And because when friends ask about our trip, most of my stories hearken back to one of these adventures.

What if you haven’t been to Australia??

By the way, I don’t believe for a moment that you have to visit Australia or New Zealand to have something to write about. One of my favorite essays EVER (student or professional) was written by an eighth grader and titled “Parking with Dad.” It described in hilarious detail the tedium of endlessly circling parking lots to find that “perfect” parking spot where nothing could happen to Dad’s car. Whether our travels take us to Australia or K-Mart, there are always things that stand out. Learning to recognize those moments or experiences (whether they last a minute or a day) is important for any writer.

Something to Try

Here’s something to try with your students: Have them list things, big and small, that happen over a specified period of time—a weekend, a week, a month, whatever. Shoot for a list of 50-100 with older students, 10-20 with younger. Then ask them to identify three they could write about. Do this with them so you can share your list, which (I guarantee) they will love. You (and your students) can write about these highlights or not. But do share the lists (or selections) with others, and ask them to help you identify the ones they’d most like to hear about—this is nearly always a surprise. The purpose of the exercise is to talk about why certain choices stand out for us, and what makes for a “good” writing topic. Where do we get our writing ideas? From life.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re going to take a small hiatus, allowing ourselves (and you) a welcome summer break! Please enjoy it to the fullest, and if you even think of going to Australia or New Zealand, we would love to hear about it. Meantime, Jeff and I will be reading some fascinating books and preparing to share them with you beginning sometime in August. We can’t tell you the titles because the excitement would be too much—but you won’t be disappointed! As always, thank you for stopping by. Don’t forget us over the summer, and please come back often and bring friends. 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. And please . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Brief Introduction by Vicki

Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand, and while composing a post related to that marvelous adventure (to appear here soon!), I stumbled upon yet another opportunity–the chance to revisit Diddorol, the magical gaming kingdom developed by middle school teacher Larry Graykin, who is easily one of the most inventive teachers I’ve ever encountered. Writing instruction in Larry’s classroom has all the charm and allure of any video game, and in the four years since I interviewed him last, I learned that Diddorol has evolved. The rules for earning points in this gaming system may appear complex, but everything comes into focus if you keep in mind that Graykin’s goals are ingeniously simple: to motivate student writers–big time, to get them not only knowing but actually using the six traits, to maximize their opportunities to work collaboratively in teams, to expose students to as many forms of writing (e.g., fiction and nonfiction) within a short time as possible, and to ensure that every student has an opportunity some way, somehow, to show off his or her strengths–editing, voice, word choice, original thinking, or whatever. But enough from me. Let’s let Larry, who invented the kingdom, tell its story . . .

Kingdom of Diddorol Poster

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

In Larry’s Own Words

During the summer of 2012, as most people tuned in to watch the world’s best athletes compete in the Olympics, I was puzzling and planning.  The prior school year, I had piloted a game overlay about a fantasy Kingdom called Diddorol. You can learn about that here:

https://sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/gaming-meets-the-six-traits/

And in more detail, here in a recent article I wrote for In Perspective:

http://www.ohiorc.org/adlit/InPerspective/Issue/2015-03/Article/vignette2.aspx ].

The experience was amazing for both my students and me, but at the end of the year, I had a problem: As my class was multiage grades 7 & 8, I was going to have half of the same students coming back to me. I could not use the same game again…that’d be boring.

Well, I called it a problem above, but it really was an opportunity. Why not experiment and see what other games I might come up with? I decided to pilot three new overlays, one per trimester. That also meant that I could focus on one at a time.

And so, I set in on Trimester One’s overlay.  I started with a goal to have students read each other’s writing more often, and to view the pieces critically. I also wanted to try building more intrinsic reasons for students to complete their work, and that meant collaboration. It occurred to me that I could have the students work on teams. And this evolved into the Diddorol Olympics.

But how to transition within the greater game’s story arc?  In the storyline the prior year, King Law had resigned as ruler of Diddorol to become a private reading tutor. In his stead, Queen Justine was put in charge. After a year of stressful complications, it only made sense that a benevolent dictator would seek to provide a spell of respite to the denizens.

After this, I contemplated what the rules might be.  Thinking about what problems might occur, what imbalances might exist for different students of differing abilities, I created special [virtual] equipment and mechanisms. Out of these considerations, the game’s structure emerged:

Kingdom of Diddorol

Kingdom of Diddorol

The Core

I don’t mean Common Core. I mean what’s important in teaching writing: The Six Traits. As I did with the original game, I used the Six Traits as the foundation. It’s a natural, as it directly addresses the most important aspects of writing, and thus addresses all the most important standards–Common or otherwise. My school adopted the traits several years ago, so my 7th and 8th graders have had at least a few years of experience with them, but we still take a few days at the beginning of the year to review them and discuss how they’re used. I like to have kids assess sample pieces and see how close they come to my assessments.

The Basics

In each class (I have five, of about 20-25 students each), there would be two teams. Each week, I would announce an open topic (e.g., love, pain, ambition), and each student would be expected to write a piece that somehow tied into that topic. The writings would be assessed on two of the Six Traits, which would be announced with the topic. At the end of the week, team members would share their writing with one another, and choose a paper from all that were written to send to a weekly competition. A presenter would be chosen by the team, who would then read the chosen piece, and I would orally assess each piece, referring to the rubrics posted around the room.

Topic Choice + Two Traits

Topic Choice + Two Traits

The Complications

When you think about it, most game rules are complications. They turn what might be a chore in other circumstances into something fun. The basic are fine, but how to spice it up?

First, the two teams could have slightly different objectives…. I thought about how I might achieve this fairly, and decided on a simple twist: Fiction vs. Non-fiction. For the first half of the trimester, one team would write about the imagined while the other focused on what’s real. At half-time, they’d swap sides.  Doing this would accomplish a couple other goals I thought worthy: Help the students to see how the Six Traits apply to either category of writing, and improve the odds of students writing non-fiction more often.

Next, I wanted to find strategies to encourage participation. My game overlays use an accumulated experience point (XP) system for assessment:

0 XP   = start point

225     = a passing grade (D-)

300     = D

600     = C

900     = B

1400    = A

1800 XP is required to get an A+.

But for this game I needed a secondary counter for team success. Olympics points (OP) were created. I would offer XP based on the team’s success to those students who did the expected work, and the total XP (experience points) earned would be based on OP (Olympics points).

Here’s how it would work:

  •  The team gets 1 OP for each paper turned in. (Since teams were about 12 students in size, this would be about 12 OP.)
  • Students in my class sit at tables. (There are six, one table for each of the traits.) I call these groupings “guilds”; there would be 3 guilds per team. The team would get 5 bonus OP for each of its guilds that had a 100% turn in rate.
  • Papers that were shared would earn OP based on the trait score. I chose a multiplier of 2 to increase the total OP possible. If one week the traits being assessed were Ideas and Organization, and a paper earned 6s on both rubrics, then that would score 24 OP.

Student Brainstorming

  • To encourage students to choose different authors’ papers each week, instead of relying on one adept student, a bonus of 3 OC would be added if the paper a team selected was by someone who never had a paper selected before. (Varying which traits would be assessed also helped to allow students with different strengths to have a chance to shine.)
  • I knew I’d want to throw in some “game stuff” that could influence the team’s total OP. What do athletes make use of to enhance their scores? I created tickets (symbolizing crowds to cheer the athletes on), virtual foods, training and team equipment, trainers, etc. Some of these elements gave a specific number of OP, some deducted OP from the opposing team, and some added increases by a set percentage. Some of these could be purchased using a form of Kingdom currency, “Explorer Credits,” and others would be given as rewards for participation in class, success in accumulating XP, etc.

Here is the scoring form I used for each competition:

Score Form

Day One might forgo the minilesson or activity. Instead, I’d use that time to introduce the week’s writing topic, as well as reveal which two traits would be assessed. Usually the Kingdom News would include a summary of the prior week’s events, and discuss the teams’ overall standings in the trimester-long competition:

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Day Four was taken up with the competition. At my school, we have a rotating block schedule, and I see each of my five classes four times over the course of an ordinary week. Every day but Day Four would generally include the usual ELA class elements: vocabulary work, a minilesson and/or assessment, and perhaps a brief activity before a “work session” which usually was about 20 minutes.

Another Topic Choice

Another Topic Choice

The Schedule

In short, what all these rules boil down to: If students do their writing on a given week, they get XP. If their tablemates all do their writing, they get more—an incentive to keep each other on task. If their entire team does all their writing, they get more still. And the better the quality of the piece they choose to share, the more XP they each get.

You’ll note that I gave a nominal amount of XP to the student who read the paper aloud, and that the final XP released would be the OP earned plus a bonus: The winning team gets OP + 15 XP, and the second place team gets OP + 5. In this way, points could be earned not only by doing well, but also through participation–for example, reading aloud.

I would “check-in” contestants’ papers, using a special hole-punch to mark them as received, and noting each guilds’ level of completion. I’d call for stadium tickets.

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Each guild would read the papers their members wrote and choose what they thought was the strongest contender, and then teammates would convene to choose the best of the three finalists. Each team would have a turn, in which the student-selected “best” would be read, and I would assess each orally (and make note of the scores onto the sheet) after hearing each.

This process just about always filled the block. If it ran short, I might fill in with a minilesson or announce the next week’s topic & traits early, and move the kids into a work session.

As detailed as all this is, I have glossed over certain elements of the game, but this gives you a sense of how the Olympics work. All in all, the design took perhaps 16 hours, spread out over a few days.

Variations

The Olympics returned in the first trimester of this school year with only minor changes. The biggest change was in the “fiction vs. non-fiction” element. I wondered if the game would work without any such restriction, and so I removed it to find out. As I guessed, most of the students chose to write fiction for the competitions. I compensated for the non-fiction Olympic deficiency by making most of the optional “quests”—specific assignments that students can take on to earn extra XP—non-fictional. This worked well for the higher achievers, but for the students who struggle getting work done, it reduced their non-fiction output. I would restore the game to the original rule next time.The second trimester of this school year, I tried a variation I called the Triathlon. It required the teams to

  1. choose a multigenre topic,
  2. research it,
  3. write about that topic in three different ways—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—over six weeks (thus “Triathlon”), and then
  4. create a website that shared the best of their writings.

This was specifically done in an effort to target as many of the new Common Core standards as possible. The results were mixed; although the final products were in most cases impressive. To see samples of student work, go to the following example site: http://grimsvotnteam.weebly.com/

More Topic Choices

More Topic Choices

Some Conclusions

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: You

If you do try something, don’t be afraid to tell the students straight out that you are piloting something new, and ask them for advice. Some of the best tweaks to my games’ rules have come from students—after all, many of them ARE gamers, and this is their turf!

And don’t think you need a thorough understanding of game theory to create a more complex game. Think of the games that you’ve played, and borrow ideas and rules from them. I am not much of a gamer, myself, but my passing acquaintance with classic text-based computer games like Zork and the online Kingdom of Loathing [link: www.kingdomofloathing.com] have given me scores of ideas.

Is gamifying right for you? If your gut reaction is intrigue, then it may be. You don’t have to do anything as complex as I. Start small. You could create a simple game-based unit that runs for a week or two. It doesn’t have to be deeply rooted in a mythological storyline, and it doesn’t have to make use of metaphor and symbolism. After all–tic tac toe is a game, and its rules are simple, it has no deeper meaning, and there’s certainly no plot. Try doing a unit with cumulative points instead of averaged points. Try having a list of possible assignments instead of a single one that everyone must do.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Me

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

 

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

 

Larry Graykin, M.Ed., teaches English language arts at Barrington Middle School in Barrington, New Hampshire. He maintains several ed-related sites, including commoncorecriticisms.wikispaces.com (a compilation of links to articles and videos critical of deleterious educational reforms) and attitudematters.wikispaces.com (about the importance of kindness). You can find him on Twitter at @L_Graykin. Recently, Barry Lane suggested he write a book about Diddorol and classroom game overlays; it is hard to say no to one’s friend, mentor, and guru…. Visitors are always welcome in Diddorol! To arrange a visit, email: LGraykin@sau74.org

Or visit virtually, online at www.diddorol.com.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Note: Videos showing the magic of Diddorol are available, and we look forward to providing a link, pending permission from the participating students.

Next time on Gurus, I’ll be writing about my adventures down under–specifically, how writers choose writing worthy moments, especially when they have many to choose from. Meantime, thank you, as always for stopping by. Please come often and bring friends. We appreciate your company!

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.

 

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