Archive for February, 2012

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

2005. New York: Anchor Books (an imprint of Random house). 353 pages.

Features: Extensive notes and bibliography, thorough index, fascinating historical photos

Genres: Biography, historic narrative, nonfiction

Ages: Adult, but suitable for many young adult readers


This book has been called a “thriller” by some reviewers, and indeed at times, it is all but impossible to believe that what one is reading is historic nonfiction–and not the invention of a talented screenwriter. To say this would make a riveting film is an understatement. The book centers on a daring adventure concocted by Theodore Roosevelt in the wake of his crushing election defeat in 1912. Though he had many loyal followers and could very likely have resumed a successful political career in years to come, Roosevelt felt a compelling need to hurl himself headlong into the most dangerous and daunting physical challenge he could find: descending an unmapped tributary of the Amazon, a menacing, blackwater river alive with rapids, piranhas, impossibly large human-eating pythons, malaria-carrying insects, and more. His cadre of roughly a dozen explorers plus some native helpers included his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous (at that time), experienced, and courageous explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.  Surrounded by an almost unimaginably vast and completely unforgiving jungle wilderness, this intrepid group faced starvation, disease, infection, murder within their own ranks, and attack by cannibals. With almost nothing to eat, their energy drained, they hacked their way through jungle growth so thick it nearly halted their movement, braved rapids more like waterfalls, bathed in waters filled with creatures that could kill them on the spot, and dreamed of the foods they would eat once they return to civilization. They had no choice. There was no turning back–for once in, the trip home was fully as treacherous as the one that lay ahead. A handful of them would survive–but none of them would ever again be the same. 

The book is simultaneously a page turner, a portrait of a man driven to test his courage (and that of his son) by pushing himself to the brink of death. This is not a typical presidential biography. There are no golf courses, no posed pictures with the family dog, no Airforce One. This is the story of what a man can do when he has absolutely nothing to depend on except raw will and fate. In the opening chapter, titled “Defeat,” Millard quotes Roosevelt as saying, “If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not the great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now” (p. 18). This is the unforgettable story of a man who made his own opportunity to demonstrate his greatness.  

If you are currently focusing on the Common Core Standards for informational writing, you will find this book an invaluable resource. It is filled with highly readable passages that reveal both the depth of Millard’s research and the excellence of her fluent style: “There are electric fishes that eat nothing but the tails of other electric fish, which can regenerate their appendages, thus ensuring the predator a limitless food supply. Other fish have evolved to eatprey that live outside of their own immediate ecosystem. The three-foot-long arawana, for example, has a huge mouth and a bony tongue and can leap twice its body length. Nicknamed the ‘water monkey,’ it snatches large insects, reptiles, and even small birds from the low branches of overhanging trees” (p. 160). You will find countless passages like this one that you can share aloud or discuss with students, even without sharing the whole book. Expect to be enthralled, disturbed, alarmed, fascinated, and hungry for more. Nearly every page provokes questions and rich discussion. This is a book that will engage students–and challenge them at the same time. Readers have opportunities to learn about Roosevelt the person and the president, as well as about the vast Amazon wilderness and its virtually infinite variety of life.

Questions for Discussion

 1. What is Roosevelt like? Is this the Roosevelt you expected?

2. What do you think of Roosevelt’s decision to chart a previously unmapped river? Do you know anyone who would make a similar decision under similar circumstances? Would you?

3. Roosevelt wants his son Kermit to accompany him on this expedition. Do you think this shows high respect for Kermit’s skills and courage–or a blatant disregard for his son’s safety? What evidence do we have of one or the other?

4. Given the dangers that the Roosevelt party faced, how would you have calculated the odds of their survival at the beginning of the expedition? Do those odds change with time? What evidence do we have?

5. What things did you learn from this book that surprised you?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of this writer’s research? What evidence do you have to support your rating?

7. Usually we expect to see presidents in the White House or Congress, being presidential: making speeches, calling for legislation, voicing positions. This is a very different sort of biography. What do we learn about Roosevelt that we might not learn seeing him in a more “presidential” context?

8. Is there a point in the story where it is hard to believe anyone from the expedition will survive? When does this occur?

9. Should this book be made into a film? If so, where should it be filmed? Who should play the part of Roosevelt? Which specific episodes from the story should be included?

10. What makes a person take on a challenge such as the one Roosevelt faced? Do you imagine yourself doing something similar at any point in your life? Why or why not?

Note . . .

The River of Doubt was recommended by a friend and colleague, Fred Wolff.  Fred is an independent writing consultant, who specializes in dynamic six trait and writing process workshops, as well as classroom demonstrations in which he works with students while teachers have a chance to observe. He and his co-author Lynna Garber Kalna (The Write Direction, 2010, Pearson Education) are currently developing a brand new workshop based on the Common Core Standards, which they hope to debut this spring. We will be sharing more information about that workshop here at Gurus once it is available. One of the many things that makes Fred so exceptionally good at his job is his impressive knowledge of literature–and his knack for sharing the “just-right” passage to illustrate detail, voice, word choice, fluency, and other features of successful writing. I always consider myself fortunate to have a friend whose book recommendations I can trust; Fred is one of those friends. Thanks for sharing this book with us, Fred–and best wishes on that Common Core workshop! If you’re interested in booking a workshop, you can contact Fred at

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next week we will review Swirl by Swirl, a gloriously poetic nonfiction book by Joyce Sidman. And in the near future, we’ll be delighted to feature Sneed Collard’s brand new book, Lizards.  Fans of Sneed’s nonfiction writing have been waiting for this one.


Rubrics, Posters, and Kits: Using Them Wisely

Rubrics, posters, and kits are not essential to teaching writing–even trait-based writing. You can teach writing with nothing more than blank paper and a few pencils if you’re inventive and brave enough. On the other hand, it’s convenient to point to a poster or reach for a rubric. The problem is, these tools of writing can be misused–especially when we begin to see them as “the truth.” Here are a few suggestions for using these now familiar tools of the writing trade wisely and well (with thanks to teacher friends Judy, Ronda, and Barbara, from whom we borrowed some ideas to share with you).

Rubrics (aka Writing Guides)

Of all the trait-connected instructional tools, rubrics are the most misunderstood (and consequently, the most maligned). They’re often viewed as sets of rules that cannot be violated if you want your writing to be any good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s a tip: Don’t call them rubrics. Call them writing guides. This will help you keep them in their place–as guides to revision, or guides to assessment. They’re not rigid rules–and they don’t hold all the answers because no writing guide can capture every nuance of good writing. You still have to use judgment, perception, and imagination. Writing guides are reflections of what we value at a given time, nothing more. And that is subject to change . . .

. . . which means that writing guides are never finished. Never. Even the very best among them are in-process drafts. That’s because (unless we purposely shut down our minds: “No Longer Accepting Ideas”), our view of what makes writing work evolves continually, mostly as a result of what we read. We read something that speaks to us, enlightens us, or startles us into a new consciousness and there’s an “aha” moment that translates into a new “rubric in the mind.” I defy anyone to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and not think in new, revolutionary ways about conventions, presentation, organization–and obviously, sentences. If we’re quick enough, and articulate enough, we can capture some of those “aha” moments on paper–not to create new rule systems (how tedious that would be), but to open new pathways for thought. Here’s the trick, though . . .

Let students revise the writing guides they use–or create them in the first place. It’s in making the guide–not using the guide–where the real magic lies. We (here at Gurus) are constantly asked to develop a persuasive writing rubric to reflect the Common Core Standards. We’re resisting. Not because we’re curmudgeons. But because actually, that is a perfect task for students. Try it in your own classroom. Here’s how . . .

Begin by collecting writing samples that show varying degrees of success in crafting an argument (think speeches, editorials, reviews, political position papers, legal arguments). Rank them with students’ help, and then discuss them with your students. Together, identify the qualities (clear position, strong evidence, logical reasoning) that mark a successful argument–and the pitfalls to avoid. What makes one argument compelling? What’s missing from another? Write down what you find. Then check yur perspective against the essentials outlined in the Common Core. Think what your students will learn by doing this–and how much more they will value their own writing guide over anything you could hand them.

Writing guides make an excellent basis for discussion in one-on-one conferences, too. Try this strategy from my middle school teacher friend, Barbara, who uses student writing guides from Creating Writers (Vicki Spandel, Pearson Education). Focusing on just one trait (perhaps ideas), she and a student each highlight phrases from the writing guide (using their own, individual copies) that seem to match what they see or hear in the student’s paper. Then they meet at the conference to compare their “highlights.” Matches and differences make for a spirited and productive discussion about what’s working and what still needs to happen. Trust us, this approach will transform the way you think about conferences.

How about grades? If you use writing guides (rubrics) for grading, take some advice from my mentor teacher Ronda. She literally chopped the 1 and 2 levels right off her writing guide, so students (and their parents) saw only descriptors for level 3 on up. What a difference this made! No more fear of the quagmire. Everything was about aiming for the stars. Students whose writing did not seem to yet merit a score of 3 were asked to revise. Their writing wasn’t a failure; it was simply considered “not yet ready for assessment.” Very respectful. Respect and assessment aren’t often words used in the same sentence–but they should be.


Of all the things developed for use in teaching the six traits, none has ever been more popular than posters. Go figure. It’s the easiest thing to make for yourself, and yet . . . teachers LOVE them! There’s something downright irresistible about summarizing something as elusive and complex as voice in a nutshell. They’re handy in another way, too: The things noted on a good poster can often be turned into specific lessons. For example, a poster for organization usually features such things as a strong, inviting lead, natural and logical transitions, and a satisfying ending that leaves you thinking. Each of those can become the focus of a lesson–or a series of lessons.

As with writing guides, however, we have to be careful not to let posters start bossing us around. You put it on the wall, and suddenly it morphs into a set of rules, such as you might see at the local swimming pool. Don’t let that happen. Open your mind and see that poster more as creative graffiti (the artistic sort, not the kind slap-dashed on the wall by vandals). The poster captures first thoughts in a nutshell–but in the classroom, you can help those first thoughts blossom.

My teacher friend Judy (who taught third grade, and now teaches fifth) starts out her year with six trait posters. But instead of posting them all the first day, she puts them up one at a time, as she and her writers move from one trait to the next. Her students never memorize what the poster says. They look on it as one person’s view, a starting point. They fully expect to add their own thoughts. Each time a student comes up with a personal response to a trait–say, voice–Judy grabs a marker and a sentence strip. “Please repeat the thought you shared with us just now,” she says, writing the student’s words down verbatim. The strip is then tacked to the poster–which very literally “flowers” as weeks go on. Students love seeing their thinking captured in print, and best of all, the posters now belong to them.

Suggestion: Take Judy’s approach a step further, and create your own in-class posters for the big three umbrella genres of the Common Core: narrative writing, informational writing, and argument. And don’t be surprised that the more you read (and the better the literature), the more your posters “flower,” just like those of Judy’s students.


I’ve heard people say you cannot find writing in a kit. (Several of those people have gone on to create kits of their own, which is both ironic and amusing.) They’re right, though–well, sort of. But not exactly in the way they intended. The thing is, it’s probably more accurate to say that writing cannot be contained in a kit. It can’t be contained in a classroom, either. The only place writing lives and thrives is in the mind of the writer. But it’s still up to us as teachers to be the catalyst, to light the spark of excitement and get those mental gears turning–and kits (the good ones, not the evil ones) are chock full of suggestions for doing just that. But . . . big caution: The kits do have to be good. Really good. for one thing, they have a bad rap to overcome.

Writing kits have a reputation for housing worksheets posing as lessons. And that reputation is all too well-earned in many cases. It isn’t hard, after all, to come up with ten or twenty nifty and all-but-mindless “activities” tangentially connected to various traits. Anyone can do it. But random lessons stuffed into a box get us nowhere–and eat up valuable writing time. Worse yet, mindless “lessons” often advocate a formulaic approach (because formulas are so simple to write): a main idea with three supporting details, or sentence and story starters to “prompt” (read anesthetize) students.

By contrast . . . a well-conceived writing kit offers students opportunities to come up with their own topics, to do extended writing in multiple genres, to explore a wide range of outstanding literature in search of passages worth sharing, saving and emulating, and to work with partners in planning, writing, revising, publishing, and evaluating. In place of random lesson detritus, expect to find a thoughtfully designed series, in which every lesson builds on previously learned skills–and everything works together to build young writers’ confidence and help them meet the requirements of the Common Core.

Kits aren’t for everyone. Let’s face it: Some teachers feel using a kit is equivalent to wearing a life vest at the swim meet. If you need it, what the heck are you doing there? These people are dynamos who live to create their own writing world. They read several books a week (more on weekends), keep elaborate journals, write novels and poetry on the side, and would no more think of borrowing a lesson than cooking a frozen dinner. (They probably don’t hire landscapers or interior decorators, either. Most cut their own hair.) We need to wish them well and step out of their way before they run us over.

For many, many other people, though . . . a kit can be a Godsend. That’s because it’s full of STUFF. And teachers, most of them, like stuff. For years, teachers implored us, “Please–could you just share your lessons, your list of literature, your sets of student papers . . . ” These people don’t lack confidence–or creativity. They lack time. If you’ve been there, you know what we’re talking about.

We (Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks, via Great Source Education) designed our Write Traits Kits just for these people. Inside, we put the best lessons we’d taught, developed or adapted, the best literature we could find, the student papers that generate the most interesting class discussions, and lessons designed to make students think. No rules. No formulas. No kidding. But stuff? Oh, yes, stuff to the max . . . passages to revise, edit, discuss, assess, or read aloud. Book recommendations galore. Opportunities for students to be writers, reviewers, editors, and document designers. All right there at your fingertips. You can use as much or as little as you like–and nothing is scripted.

A well-designed kit will give you something to reach for when you need it, but it will let you be you. Because in the end, you are the ultimate catalyst.

If you love to read and write, if you are constantly learning new strategies for doing both well, if you cannot wait to see the next thing your students produce, then posters or kits or writing guides are simply tools to help you do what you were born to do–and what you will do brilliantly with or without them. If you do not love writing instruction to the very core of your being, however, then no poster or kit will help–because the one thing none of them can do ever, ever, ever is take your place.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Later this week, we’ll take a quick look at a book recommended by a friend and colleague, Fred Wolff. It’s The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. The book is a masterpiece of informational writing, and if you’re a fan of biography or historic narrative, you won’t want to miss this one. Next week, we’ll review the inimitable Joyce Sidman’s new nonfiction book for young readers, Swirl by Swirl. For the best six trait professional development, please contact us: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Do you have students who never raise their hands?

Maybe they’re introverts. If so, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one heck of a lot to say. They may just need another way to express it, in small-group discussions, for example, or with a partner, or through writing. Introverts are often deep thinkers–and some of the major contributors to our society: think Bill Gates, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak, Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet. These are just a handful of the people mentioned in the fascinating book–

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

2012. New York: Crown Publishing (an imprint of Random House). 266 pages. Author’s notes and extensive documentation.


It turns out that perhaps a third of the people we know (maybe even more) are introverts. These are the people who 
not only do not mind being alone–they crave it. Many of them dread social functions, avoid crowds, prefer reading to partying, and love to innovate but aren’t so keen on self-promoting. They also tend to be highly empathetic and extraordinarily skilled listeners. In a fascinating, thoroughly researched book, author Susan Cain (an attorney and
self-acclaimed introvert herself) reveals what life is like for introverts in a society that largely views extroversion
as the ideal. Quiet explains what introverts are like (not that they’re all alike–because that’s one of the myths), how their brains function, how they develop (biology versus environment), and above all, how they cope–in the
classroom, in the workplace, with extroverted parents, friends, and spouses. Along the way, she treats us to anecdotes about some of the world’s better known introverts–and extroverts (FDR, Ted Turner, and others)–and provides a quiz by which you can gauge whether you lean more toward being an introvert or extrovert.

It’s intriguing to discover that the modern workplace can be a virtual nightmare for introverts. The forced interactions, required participation in meetings, and increasingly tiny cubicles with almost no privacy can squash creativity more than we might imagine. It’s no surprise to many people that the ideal workplace for some of the most imaginative among us is actually the corner coffee house (see p. 93) with a “social, come-and-go-as-you-please nature” that allows just the right mix of interaction and focused concentration. Introverts thrive on losing themselves in personally important projects–but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sensitive to outside stimuli, so long as they can control the ebb and flow. (Think how little opportunity most schools offer for reflection and quiet thinking, and you can see the significance of this research.)

Cain  also has messages for us about creating classroom environments (pp. 255-256) in which introverts can thrive. Among other things, she suggests not thinking of introversion as “something that needs to be cured.” She recommends allowing students who feel more comfortable doing so to work with a single partner or in a very small group of three–and not forcing such students to engage in whole-class discussions, which can feel terrifying and actually diminish self-esteem and confidence.

It’s important to note that Cain does not by any means suggest that introverts are needy people for whom we should continually make special accommodations. On the contrary. Cain sees introverts as strong and independent–just often unnoticed or unappreciated. Precisely because they are quiet, because they tend to work behind the scenes, not drawing attention to themselves, we as a society often fail to take advantage of their insight and intelligence. In her brilliant conclusion titled “Wonderland,” she tells us, “If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasm for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow” (p. 265).

This is a rich, provocative, and highly revealing book. I recall beginning our tenth grade year with a teacher who announced on Day 1, “If you’re shy, get rid of it.” How I wish he’d had access to Cain’s research.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith 

2011. New York: Roaring Brook Press

Genre: Picture book

Ages: All

Note: Lane Smith is the author and illustrator of the best-selling Jon, Paul, George & Ben, as well as It’s a Book, a New York Times bestseller that has been translated into 17 languages. He has illustrated books by Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Jack Prelutsky, Florence Parry Heide, and Jon Scieszka–including The Stinky Cheese Man, for which he won a Caldecott Honor award.


You’ll want to read this gorgeous little book more than once. Each time, you’ll discover something new to love in Lane Smith’s tribute to a grandfather who keeps a topiary “journal” of major events in his life. Grandpa Green grew up in a simpler time, before cell phones and television–and so had time to be reflective and creative. He fell in love, went to war, got married, had children and grandchildren, and documented it all in the way most natural to him, through the art of his garden. The words are few (much of the meaning unfolds through the art), and the story is deceptively simple. Yet it reveals so much about memories, self-expression, and the special, appreciative love that sometimes spans generations. This book is whimsical, yet deeply touching–almost reverent–in its homage to the gentle side of the human spirit. It’s a lovely book to share with young readers, one even beginners can navigate on their own. Yet adults of all ages will be drawn to its loving message–and of course, to the very beautiful visual memories: green, black, and white–with occasional significant splashes of red. (It makes a terrific Valentine.)

In the Classroom

1. Take a minute to enjoy the artwork displayed on the cover. What is the grandfather doing? Do any of your students know about topiary? Have they ever seen examples of it? Why might Grandpa Green be sculpting an elephant?

2. Be sure to share this book in a way that allows everyone to take in the art–which carries so much of the meaning. Use a document projector if possible, and allow students time to take in and even comment on the pictures. You may wish to read the book more than one time.

3. Connections between text and illustrations are sometimes obvious, sometimes less so. You might want to talk about this and as you go along, talk about why Grandpa Green chose to create particular pieces of art. Some students may recognize characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” for example, and some may not.

4. Most of the pictures feature a little boy. Who is he? Is he the same person in every picture?

5. What does the author mean at the end of the story (the big fold-out) when he tells us that the garden “remembers” some things for Grandpa Green?

6. Not everyone has a topiary garden, but we have other ways of holding onto memories. What are some of them? How do your students hold onto their memories?

7. Do any of your students keep a journal? If so, how do they decide what to put into it? Try keeping journals for a week. Entries could be drawings, writing, photos pasted in–anything. At the end of the week, talk about the kinds of things you chose to remember and why. (Be sure you keep one, too!)

8. Where do your students imagine Lane Smith got his idea for this book? Did he perhaps have a grandfather like Grandpa Green? Or could he be like Grandpa Green himself? Talk about real-life experiences (gardening, cooking, traveling, pets) that might provide a basis for a story about a grandparent or other relative–or one about yourself. Create some “memory” stories of your own.

9. This book doesn’t use many words. Yet it tells the story of one person’s whole life. How is this possible?  Do books always need many words?

10. It’s often said that writing with voice touches us. It makes us feel something. How does this book make you feel? How does it make your students feel? Is this a book for children or grown-ups? Or both? What do your students think?

11. Do your students have a favorite picture in the book? If so, which one is it–and why?

12. It’s sometimes said that great books are the ones people read more than once. Do your students imagine themselves reading this book more than one time? What other ways are there to tell if a book is “great”?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

How can you make the BEST use of rubrics, posters, or classroom kits? We’ll share some thoughts about this. Meantime, thanks for stopping by–and do come again! Happy Valentine’s Day. And for the best PD in writing on the planet, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

What are we REALLY teaching when we teach the traits?

This seems like an obvious question. Aren’t we teaching six writing concepts–idea development, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions & presentation (the art of publishing)? Sure. And in doing so, we’re giving students a language for talking and thinking like writers, as well as an indepth understanding of how writing works.

If were teaching the traits well, however, there’s more to it–a LOT more. To understand this, consider the primary strategies we use to teach trait-based writing:

  • Assessment & discussion
  • Literature (mentor texts)
  • Modeling
  • Practice in revision

Through these strategies, we not only increase students’ understanding of writing, but also provide them with three mindsets every writer needs:

  • Independence
  • Awareness
  • Confidence

This is what separates trait-based instruction from all formulaic approaches: The ultimate goal is to have students working on their own, not dependent on formulas, not even dependent on us. To see how this works, let’s explore each of the four key strategies.

Assessment & discussion

Students learn a great deal about writing by assessing and talking about the work of others. They can use rubrics (writing guides) to do this, but they don’t have to–any more than we have to grade a piece of their work to appreciate it. The point is to get inside the writing, to figure out what is strong and why, and what you’d do differently if you were in charge. This kind of evaluative thinking is not easy; it requires imagination and focus. But consider what an education in writing teachers get all the time just by assessing their students’ work. Why shouldn’t students have a chance to learn in this same way? Students also need the insight and perspective that only comes from getting to wear the evaluator’s hat now and then. They need to review more than student writing, though–because very little of it resembles what they’ll be asked to do in the real world once they are out of school. Have them assess editorials, newspaper articles, directions of all kinds, excerpts from textbooks or other nonfiction, advertisements, speeches, letters, proposals, resumes, and more. Remember that rubrics can be helpful for this kind of assessment because they often help us find words to express ourselves, and the numbers on a scale can provide a basis for discussion when we don’t agree. But with practice, students go beyond the language of any rubric, finding their own words for describing strengths and problems. At this point, they become confident evaluators who can determine on their own whether a piece of writing (including their own) is working–and if not, what to do about it.


Almost everyone who teaches writing uses mentor texts in one way or another–whether simply reading aloud or, like my author friend Jeff Anderson, tracking down model sentences or short passages to illustrate dynamic structure, innovation, grammatical nuance, creative punctuation, and more. Exposure to great literature expands the understanding students gain by assessing and discussing everyday writing. When you share a fine published piece, you’re stepping up the game a notch, letting students see how the pro’s do it. How does a best-selling author achieve voice? Is it true that professional writers rely more on verbs than on adjectives? Do professional writers vary their sentence structure as rubrics suggest we should do? Are they conventionally rigid–or do they mess around? Do the pro’s generally have a main idea and three supporting details–or is that a myth?

Literature heightens awareness. it reveals the truth about writing: the myriad of irresistible things clever people can do with words. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should have classes full of students with green visors, poring over pages with magnifying glasses, hunting for literary gems. Just reading for the pure joy of it has enormous impact–especially if the writing is fine. And mediocre work has its place, too. In his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King reminds us that “quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (2000, p. 145). Hear, hear. Plus, it’s a real kick to hear a student say, “I can do better than that.” Nothing like outwriting a published author to make your confidence soar.

Modeling (aka, Problem Solving)

Mention modeling and a lot of people picture a teacher standing before the class laboriously cranking out an essay. If this works for you, do not let me discourage you. But I have to say, that’s more what I would call “extreme modeling.” Just way too hard. Writing whole pieces in front of an audience is not relaxing, natural–or even especially helpful. The problem is, the watchers don’t learn a heck of a lot more than they’d learn from seeing the finished essay–except, of course, that you’re very nervy. (And good for you–I really mean it–if you do this.) What they need to see, though, is what’s happening in your head. Writing is, in large part, problem solving. Give your students awareness and confidence by sharing the problems you face as a writer–and then solving them as they watch and listen. You have to talk as you write. You might tackle problems like these: choosing a topic, figuring out where to find the best information, writing a sentence three ways and deciding which sounds best, getting rid of a passage you’ve fallen in love with that just plain doesn’t fit, coming up with a good lead or ending, writing honestly so the voice comes through, spicing up dialogue, taking criticism gracefully–and figuring out whether it’s actually helpful, choosing a title, scanning a source to identify the very best quotation–the one your readers will learn from and remember.

Once you start approaching modeling this way, you’ll begin to envision all sorts of “tight spots” your students will love seeing you work your way out of. This might just become your favorite way to teach. And what happens when students discover how to solve writing problems? Right . . . awareness, confidence, and independence.

Practice Revising

Revision isn’t fixing. Nor is it chipping away tediously at your masterpiece until it fits someone else’s vision of how it ought to look. If students think of revision this way, they will hate it. Who wouldn’t? Revision is a creative act. It’s starting to sing the National Anthem too high on the scale–and coming down an octave. It’s rearranging your living room furniture, painting the walls, hanging your own art where the Picasso used to be, going somewhere different on vacation, going sleeveless, losing weight, cutting your hair (or growing it out), accepting a dare.  

In teaching students to revise writing, we usually begin with students’ own writing–and this can be a game killer. Why? Because it’s threatening and because they tend to tread so lightly when tinkering with their own work that nothing interesting happens. Sometimes, they aren’t sure what to do. Worst of all, it feels like someone else’s idea. You don’t want someone else telling you to cut your hair, lose weight, or take down your Picasso. See the difference? Revision has to come from within.

That’s why they need to practice on someone else’s work first. This builds the confidence and skill they need to see their own work differently. It’s almost never tedious to analyze someone else’s writing. It’s fun. It’s also fun to rip it apart and rebuild it. And if students have been discussing writing, listening to good literature, and seeing you model problem solving, they have a wide repertoire of revision possibilities to draw from. Have students work on short, problematic pieces they can readily assess and improve: an anonymous student piece, an office memo, a public relations statement, a business letter, the first page of a not-very-exciting picture book–or just something you make up. They should work in teams of two, so they can talk as they revise. It’s more fun that way. Read the results aloud and applaud every ingenious solution your revisers come up with. Soon they’ll be applying what they’ve learned to their own writing–and when that happens, they truly own their writing process.

Can you assess mindsets?

Yes, actually, you can. Granted, being confident and independent isn’t like “writing a paragraph with a clear main idea.” You can’t just collect writing samples and score them. But that’s only one kind of valid assessment. Think how much you learn about your students just watching them as they work: Who has an easy time coming up with a topic? Who’s ready to coach others? Who’s good at reading her work aloud before revising? Who’s never ready to stop writing at the end of workshop? Who’s always hunting up passages from literature that he just has to share? Who’s comfortable moving from genre to genre? You get the idea.

Listen to the comments students make–here are a few that show real comfort with writing and revising:

  • This isn’t ready to publish yet
  • I need to do more research
  • I love this lead–I really improved it
  • There’s a better way to say this
  • This part right here is the best thing in my whole paper
  • I am going to end this totally differently
  • I tried to write something I’d want to read
  • When I read this aloud, it actually sounds like me

What about rubrics, posters, and kits?

Do they fit in? Can they help? They do and they can–if you use them wisely. We get many questions about this, and we’ll talk more about it in an upcoming post.

Coming up on Gurus . . . 

We are taking an early, very short spring break here at Gurus! But please rejoin us the week of February 13 when we’ll review and celebrate Lane Smith’s gorgeous picture book, Grandpa Green. We love it–and think you will, too. Remember, for exceptional professional development in writing (emphasizing the four strategies outlined here), please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.