Archive for April, 2012

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). 2011. Sue Macy. New York: The National Geographic Society.

Genre: Lavishly illustrated informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 4 and up

Features: Historic information; vintage photos, sketches, advertisements, and drawings; resource list for further research; informative timeline interweaving the history of the bicycle with milestones in women’s liberation.

91 pages


When you live as I do in Central Oregon,  it’s all but impossible not to be an avid cyclist. Trails beckon from every river, mountain, and forest—and the scenery is so spectacular it’s literally hard to look away. But I confess it never occurred to me until I read this book that I was literally riding the trails on a symbol of freedom: the bicycle. In the 1880s and 90s, the bicycle changed women’s lives in dramatic ways, giving them power—usually for the first time—to escape unwanted supervision and move independently through the world. This terrified some people, and enraged many others. But female cyclists could scarcely have been happier. They were downright giddy with their newfound freedom. It was about to get better—or worse, depending on your point of view. Quite predictably, the increasing popularity of the bicycle brought about a virtual revolution in women’s fashion. Previously, women had been sweltering and swooning inside corsets that made breathing next to impossible, voluminous petticoats that filled small rooms, and 20-pound skirts that swept the streets, picking up—well, imagine for yourself. Corsets and hoopskirts are not the preferred costume of an athlete, however. And so, despite widespread criticism and disapproval, women who cycled began to dress quite differently, and behave differently as well–to the deep satisfaction of some, and consternation of others. Change was afoot–big change.

In this little slice of history, author Sue Macy tracks the evolution of the bicycle, from the infamous (and dangerous) high wheeler, to the well-named boneshaker to the velocipede and safety (the bike presumably less likely to send you flying over the handlebars). Along the way, we’re treated to numerous anecdotes about historic figures who played a role in the cycling revolution: e.g., Annie Oakley, said to love her bike as much as her horse; Marie Curie, who rode a bicycle on her honeymoon; feminist Amelia Bloomer, who gave her name to an outfit that looks innocent enough now, but raised countless eyebrows in the 1850s; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw the bicycle as a force for racial equality as well as women’s rights; and early daredevil racers like Frankie Nelson and Louise Armaindo, who sped around wooden tracks for hours, even days, risking their very lives to thrill crowds.

It’s amusing to discover, through Macy’s account, that bicycling was once considered quite immoral for women (primarily because no one knew where they were going or what they might be up to once they got there)—and also relatively dangerous to one’s health. Even men were urged by their physicians not to take excessively long rides—of say, twenty-five minutes. “Overbicycling” was a common medical diagnosis in the late 1800s, and bicycling was considered less than advisable for young riders whose skeletons had not yet matured (p. 33).

The riveting text (filled with entertaining surprises) is enriched by drawings, photos, ads, and editorials that Macy has meticulously culled from a variety of sources. These allow us to conceptually and visually trace changes in the bicycles themselves, as well as the slow but steady emergence of women from the clothing that had held them captive for so long. This is informational writing with zest and flair: concise, beautifully organized, filled with detail, and highly readable.

In the Classroom

  • Background.  How many of your students ride bicycles? Do you? Talk about where you ride and how far. Has anyone ridden as much as 100 miles in a single trip? This used to be termed a “century” (p. 41), and was considered quite impressive. Also talk about how long bicycles have been around. When did they first come to America. When did they become popular? What did the early bicycles look like—and feel like? Share the photos and drawings on pages 10, 12, 14 and 16, using a document projector if you have one. What do your students notice about these early models? (You may wish to discuss the disparity in wheel size and the fact that women’s pedals were both on the left. Also note that early models had no rubber tires—and were extraordinarily heavy.)
  • Historic background. What do your students know now about the Women’s Rights Movement? Is it an area of interest for them? Talk about some of the things women take for granted now (such as the right to vote) that were not a routine part of life in the 1800s. Can any students name major figures in this movement—or milestone events? How many would have thought of connecting the bicycle to women’s rights? You may wish to do some additional research and/or refer to the chart depicting “Women’s History” and “Bicycle History,” pages 90-91.
  • Personal connections. In Sue Macy’s book, the bicycle becomes a symbol of freedom. Does it have this meaning for your students, too—or for you? What freedoms does a bicycle grant us today that we might not have without it? Talk or write about this.
  • Reading. You will want, as always, to read the book in advance—perhaps choosing a few favorite sections to read aloud and discuss with your students. The first chapter, “Inventing the Bicycle,” is highly recommended. Chapters 2 and 3, “The Devil’s Advance Agent” and “Fashion Forward,” will both spark lively discussions about how attitudes and customs have changed in just over 100 years. Students are likely to find this contrast striking (even hard to believe). Be sure to share illustrations as you go along, taking time to discuss what they reveal about both fashions and beliefs of the time.
  • Topic. What do your students suppose got Sue Macy so interested in the history of the bicycle? (For some hints, see her Introduction, pages 8-9.) Was this a good topic choice for her? Why? How important is it for a writer to hit on a topic that has personal importance? Does Macy’s book prompt your students to think about researching other  topics that have personal appeal for them? Make a list.
  • Exploring themes. Author Sue Macy builds a strong case for the relationship between fashion and women’s rights. Ask students to talk about this—and write about it. What is the nature of this connection? Why did women agree, for so long, to wear clothing that made them uncomfortable and inhibited movement? Is fashion today a matter of free choice—or something imposed on women by others? Have students write their opinions.
  • Original research. What impact does the bicycle have on American lives today? Does it influence the lives of men and women equally? And is it still a symbol of freedom? In what way? Talk about how to set up a study to answer an original question (See for emphasis on original research, and see our recent post on Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks, Jr., for ideas on setting up an original research study).
  • Details. One of the most striking things about Sue Macy’s book is the volume of information she packs into 91 short pages. As you share various chapters or shorter passages, talk about what you and your students are learning about the bicycle and/or women’s rights. Make a list of particularly outstanding details. Discuss the concept of informational writing as writing that teaches us something new.
  • Word choice. In narrative writing, word choice is often linked with vivid imagery or verbs that create intensity or a sense of motion. In informational writing, we often look and listen for terminology used well. See if your students can identify some of the most memorable terms from Macy’s book. Consider, for example, the boneshaker (p. 16). How did this bicycle get its name? Was it appropriate? What other terms grab your attention?
  • Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it personal? Lively? Confident? Comical? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece.
  • Argument. The Omaha Daily Bee published a list of “Don’ts for Women Wheelers” in its September 1, 1895 edition (See page 38). Share this list with students and discuss it. This list may seem ridiculous to us now—and it’s easy to imagine how it might be ridiculed on a comedy or late-night talk show. But given how very long ago this list was printed, was it ridiculous for the time—or was it common sense in 1895? Do we have any rules or customs now that are likely to be seen as equally provincial at some point in the future? Talk or write about this.  
  • Predictions and inventions. Looking at bicycles like the high wheeler or bone shaker, it is difficult to imagine why anyone purchased them. But of course, that was back when bicycles were new on the American scene, and customers had little with which to compare them. Take a look at a modern-day bicycle. What things do we love about it? What might we wish to be different? What might a “typical” bicycle look like 50 or 100 years from now—or do your students predict that the design will remain essentially the same?
  • Writing and research. Share the Foreword by Leah Missbach Day, co-founder of World Bicycle Relief. Discuss a few of the ways in which bicycles continue to change lives around the world. Encourage interested students to do further research on this. Can anyone connect with a person from another country who is enjoying the freedom of the bicycle for the first time?
  • Presentation. The writer and designers combine color and shape, snapshots and paintings, editorials and advertisements, and much more to create a collage that gives this piece the look and feel of a personal scrapbook. As you work your way through the text, discuss design features you find particularly effective. Which, if any, could your students adopt for their own writing? Which are especially effective? Why?
  • Audience. Given the topic, is this a book intended primarily for girls or women? Would it be—or should it be—equally interesting to males? Why? Talk or write about this.  
  • Argument. Though Macy doesn’t come right out and say it, she implies through various anecdotes and quotations that the bicycle has been one of the most—if not the most—influential invention in promoting women’s rights. On page 81, for example, she quotes the L.A. W. Bulletin and Good Roads magazine of 1898 as stating that the bicycle had given women a “means of securing a degree of freedom and independence that no amount of discussion regarding ‘women’s rights’ would ever have produced.” Do you agree? Is there actual evidence for this level of influence—within this book or from other sources? To answer the question, have students check the source list at the back of the book, or contact bicycle manufacturers, professional riders, bicycling organizations, and so forth, to collect information or commentary. Some may have grandparents or other relatives or family friends who might be interviewed about their own memories involving bicycles—and the changes the bicycle produced.
  • Genre—and adaptation. Most people would classify this text as informational—yet it has a flavor all its own. Perhaps it’s also adaptable to other forms—such as a documentary film or even a series of podcasts. Imagine the book transformed in this way, and discuss some of the decisions that would go into reshaping it.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Part 2 of our “Down the Rabbit Hole” discussion is coming up soon. And shortly, we’ll be reviewing the National Book Award winner Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Thanks for stopping by—come often and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST in writing workshops that feature traits, process, and writing workshop, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.



Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe

2010. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 32 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Upper Elementary through high school

Features: Distinctive art, ”More” About Jimi Hendrix, Author’s and illustrator’s note, Sources and resources.


In 1969, for my thirteenth birthday, I received four of the coolest record albums ever. I could tell how cool they were (and how cool they made me) because my mother didn’t approve of any of them. These albums by Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf), The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida), and Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced?) were my big step over the line of Top 40 AM radio and the music of my parents. These albums really began my record collection and shaped my interest in music. Years later (I’m feeling so old right now), when my son was maybe ten, he wanted to hear some of my “old” music. He had a classic rock compilation CD with one Jimi Hendrix tune, and he wanted to hear more. It was really just an introduction to the music of Jimi Hendrix, but we played some songs off a couple records, and I felt cool again, passing the torch of coolness to my son (who would think it very un-cool to use the phrase “torch of coolness”). There’s a quote from Jimi included near the end of Gary Golio’s Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, “When I die, just keep playing the records.” I realized it wasn’t coolness I was passing on to my son but the creative energy of an amazing musician. And that, I believe is the aim of this beautiful book.

Gary Golio’s book is not a straightforward birth to death biography, and it is not aimed solely at a teenage audience, those of an age most likely to “discover” Jimi Hendrix’s music. The author focuses on Jimi’s early life to acquaint younger readers with both the musician and the source of his musical and creative vision. (The details of Jimi’s substance abuse and early death are not ignored but offered to readers in an author’s note and suggestions—websites, books, etc.—for further reading and exploration.) Since there is not a CD accompanying the book, you might wonder how readers will get a sense of the sound and music that Jimi Hendrix is famous for. This is accomplished through the marriage of lyrical text, art, and page design. Text—in traditional straight line sentences, formal paragraphs, and lines that curve and flow like musical notes—overlays the amazing full-page art of illustrator Javaka Steptoe. The harmony of words and illustrations “sing” the story of Jimi Hendrix to life, page after page.

Here are some ideas to help you put this book to work for you and your students in your writing classroom.

In the Classroom

1. Background. Clearly, the purpose of a biography is to teach readers about the life of its subject, but it’s still important to check with students for any prior knowledge. Has anyone heard of Jimi Hendrix? Who has heard his music? Who plays a musical instrument? How did they learn? Who are some of their favorite musicians—not just singers? Who listens to music at home? in the car? with their parents? (Who has a dad as cool as me?)

2. Reading. As always, read the book prior to sharing it with students so there won’t be any surprises and to familiarize yourself with all the book has to offer. Pay close attention to all the sensory details and figurative language used by the author, and their connections to the art and layout of each page. I suggest using sentence strips or chart paper to copy one or two of your favorite details or similes as models for students to help them find other examples. Be ready to ask students what they notice about the art and the layout of each page. (If you are using the Write Trait Classroom Kits© Grades 1-8, your students will be familiar with this kind of conversation—they might even initiate it—from their efforts in Conventions & Presentation lessons.) Don’t miss the opportunity to share the art on each page—a document camera is a great tool for this, as is simply holding the book up for your students (“I can’t see!”). If you are fortunate enough to have a music and/or art teacher in your school, this would be a great book to share with those teachers, as well. Some of the instructional opportunities that follow would fit easily in one of those classrooms or as part of your efforts to team up and “write across the curriculum.”

3. Detail/Word Choice—Poetry. This book is about a musician, so sound details and descriptions abound. On page 7, the author writes, “The sounds of life were calling out.” Go through the book a second time to help students find examples of the  “sounds of life” that were part of Jimi’s life. Make a list of these sounds. Refer students to the chart/sentence strips you created earlier.  Look for examples that use a simile to clarify the reference for readers. Chart these separately and discuss why the author chose to use figurative language to extend the details.  This would be a great time to ask students about the sounds of their lives, at home and at school. Sounds are great memory triggers—what sounds make them happy? feel hungry? feel safe? (I had a student write a poem about sounds—how sounds from the kitchen or of her dad brushing his teeth made her feel safe and secure.) On page 13, the author wonders, “Could someone paint pictures with sound?” Students could turn this around to try to use words to paint a sound picture or choose colors, like Jimi, to describe/identify a sound (pages 10-11). You and your students could even take a sound “field trip” by walking around your school—inside and out—with paper and pencil to record thoughts/feelings/descriptions of what they hear. Poetry would be a great outlet for their thinking—the sounds of the playground, the cafeteria, the office, kindergarten, etc. Jimi grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an urban setting. Student from a more suburban or rural community could contrast their “sounds” with those from Jimi’s city and neighborhood.

4. Word Choice/Voice. The author uses such active verbs, it would be a shame not to shine the spotlight on them and even play around with some to help students strengthen their understanding of the connection between word choice and voice. Here are a few of the verbs from the very first page—ripped, rocked, jumped, tumbling, plinking, rippled, etc. Students might have fun substituting these with less descriptive, more repetitive, watered down replacements—went, moved, falling, etc. Students can discuss/reflect on what happens to the voice of the writer and the reader’s involvement in the story, when verbs, in particular, aren’t as strong as they need to be.

5. Organization. Take time to discuss the organization of Golio’s book. How does the writer begin? How does he end? Notice the extra sections following the story of Jimi Hendrix’s early life—More About Jimi Hendrix page 28, Author’s Note on page 30, Illustrator’s Note on page 31, and Sources and Resources on the final page, which includes references to websites, books, and a selected discography of CDs, videos, and DVDs. (Some of these references will be more appropriate for older students.)

6. Writing/Further Research–Biography. Invite students to research and write an introductory biography of  one of the other musicians mentioned in the book—B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Howlin’ Wolf. Like this book, students could focus on their musician’s early life or just the key events that shaped the music that made them famous. Part of their research would involve listening, which might require some help from you, their music teacher, and school or local library.

7. Art Connection/Further Research. As was suggested above, be sure to read the Illustrator’s Note on page 31. Not only does Javaka Steptoe discuss the process of creating the art for this book, he also offers excellent advice to both artists and writers about “researching” your subject. As we always emphasize in workshops, readers will know—it’s part of what helps to create voice—when writers are “experts” on their topics. Steptoe tells readers that “…you can’t just pick up a book…” and expect to know everything about your topic. Writers and artists have to dig deeper. On another note, as I read the book, I couldn’t help being reminded of the illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats, the award winning author/illustrator of such classics as The Snowy Day, Pet Show, and Whistle for Willie, to name only a few. I’m sure your school or local library has some of Mr. Keats’ books, and your students might be interested in discussing what they notice about the two artists. For more about Javaka Steptoe, visit

Musical Note…

In case you thought I wasn’t going to mention it, listening to some Jimi Hendrix music is, of course, a great idea but only if you are comfortable with it. Even if you are not a fan, hearing Jimi play the guitar would complete the picture for your students, and I guarantee it would get them talking, and hopefully, writing.

Note . . .

Gary Golio, has also written a book about Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and coming in the fall of 2012, a biography of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Visit him at

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Yes, Down the Rabbit Hole Part II is coming (once I climb back out). As always, we’ll help you make connections to narrative, poetry, and informational writing and argument, via the Common Core StandardsThank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice. 

Teaching Argument Writing: Supporting Claims with Relevant Evidence and Clear Reasoning. 2011. 
George Hillocks, Jr. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Grade Levels: 6 through 12 (though highly recomended for teachers at upper elementary levels as well)

Features: Instructional guidelines; samples of student discussions; tips on pretesting, selecting problems for discussion, and making small-group work effective; reproducible samples; an outstanding study guide, Foreword by Michael Smith.

222 pages, including Study Guide


If you’ve been perusing the Common Core Standards (, then you know how much emphasis is placed on the teaching of argument. It’s no mystery why this is. Writing a good argument requires deep thinking, thinking that is important not just to language arts classes but to all subjects, to education itself—and to a moral and fulfilling life beyond the classroom. Even if you’re very familiar with the requirements of the standards, however, you may still have many questions about how to teach argument. Here’s a resource that will provide genuine help.

Hillocks’ book Teaching Argument Writing is thoughtfully designed and intelligently written. It picks up where the Common Core Standards leave off by telling you what the standards do not: that is, how to teach the craft of argument. As Hillocks makes abundantly clear, this is not a simple three-step process. Don’t look for shortcuts. It takes time and a great deal of preparation and effort, but the results can be striking. If the examples in the book are any indication, students taught through Hillocks’ inquiry method do in fact learn to think through situations, draw inferences, define concepts, rely on evidence, and hone their thinking. Just what we wanted. You will see and hear this for yourself in full-blown discussions, written in students’ own words, that make you feel as if you’re right there in the classroom.

The book covers such topics as the basics of argument writing; crafting arguments of fact, judgment, and policy; focusing on problems students truly care about; making judgments based on criteria; defining elusive or abstract concepts such as courage; developing and supporting criteria; and drawing inferences to support arguments based on literary interpretation.

Throughout, Hillocks makes clear connections to the requirements of the Common Core. But what’s particularly impressive about the book is the intricate scaffolding—not only for the students with whom he conducted his research, but for us, the educators who plan to use this resource. Hillocks takes us from the simple to the complex in easy, understandable steps. He introduces us to basics, such as the elements of argument: claim, evidence, warrants, backing, and qualifications or rebuttals (page xix). He also provides intriguing examples to keep us engaged—murder mysteries to solve, for example. With each set of examples, you’ll likely find yourself saying, “My kids would love this.”

Two recurring themes underscore every chapter: (1) We can make argument interesting by the way in which we teach it; and (2) the value of discussion prior to writing cannot be overstated—students need to talk before they write.

Hillocks helps us to understand that good argument is about precision. There simply is no room for lazy thinking, hasty detail, or opinion posing as evidence. There is no room for terms used carelessly or judgments made without backing. The message is clear: good argument is a demanding genre. You may want to spend at least four to six hours with this book, reading, highlighting, and planning classroom activities. You will emerge with numerous instructional ideas, but in addition, a new understanding of and respect for this complex, challenging genre. Hillocks just might make it your favorite.

In the Classroom

Following are just a few highlights of each section to give you a sense of this remarkable book’s depth and scope:

  • The Preface.  Here Hillocks makes his own case for teaching argument, calling it “the kind of writing students need to know for success in college and in life—the kind of writing that the Common Core State Standards puts first” (page xvii). He discusses the elements of argument, elaborately and clearly defining concepts such as claim, evidence, and warrant. This is one Preface you don’t want to skip.
  • Introduction. This is one of my favorite sections. Here Hillocks discusses the concept of “flow,” citing research by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihslyi (pages 2ff.). The concept of flow refers to situations in which a learner feels a sense of control, has clear objectives and purpose, and yet becomes so deeply, effortlessly involved in the activity at hand that time passes unnoticed and concern for self disappears. It is just this sort of immersion in the moment that needs to happen in our classrooms, Hillocks says, in order for instruction to be maximally effective. His lessons are designed to create this sort of flow.
  • Chapter 1: Whodunit?   This delightful chapter focuses on writing arguments of fact. Hillocks presents us with several mysteries to solve (we get text and pictures), along with expanded student discussions. Through these discussions, we see how he helps students tease out the evidence and work out certain rules to help explain or interpret the evidence. The discussions are lively, and we see students building a foundation for thinking logically.
  • Chapter 2: What Makes a Good Mascot—or a Good leader? This chapter builds on skills students have developed by showing them how to write simple arguments of judgment. The students review and discuss several school mascots, analyzing the positives and negatives of each, then develop a set of criteria for judging the worthiness of a mascot, and use these criteria to choose a mascot and defend that choice. They also analyze a drawing: an eighteenth century etching of the Prince of Wales by John Gillray (Figure 2.2, page 50). The idea is to make inferences from the sketch regarding the prince’s character (This is surprisingly fun and easy to do), and then to use those inferences in developing a set of criteria for judging whether this fellow (or anyone, for that matter) would make a good king. The chapter includes outstanding tips for making small-group discussions effective (see pages 65-66).
  • Chapter 3: Solving problems Kids Care AboutIn this very important chapter, Hillocks points out that in most research-based projects, students “are not required to collect and interpret any original data” (page 68). So-called “research” in today’s schools is often nothing more than a summary of what other people have thought. This, he asserts, must change if we are to meet the requirements of the Common Core that students identify and answer an important question (page 69). Hillocks shows us just how much students can learn from original research (versus simply citing the findings of others) through an example involving Mrs. Peterson’s eighth graders. Gum chewing has been banned at their school—allegedly because cleaning the desks, where used gum is often left, has become prohibitively expensive. But is it really all that expensive to scrape gum off desks? And is the rule helping? The students design and conduct an investigation through which they learn the fine points of setting up personal research and writing an argument of policy.
  • Chapter 4: How Are judgments Made in the Real World? This chapter offers an outstanding and enlightening discussion of warranted versus unwarranted judgments—together with an explanation of why definitions are so vital. We cannot judge, for instance, whether something is an act of terrorism unless we have a clear definition of the term in our minds.
  • Chapter 5: Answering Difficult Questions. In this chapter, Hillocks uses the example of The Giraffe Project (a small foundation in Washington State) to show how students learn to apply criteria. Using reproducible samples, students must decide who is worthy of winning the Giraffe Award. Later, they use other examples to determine what charges to bring in potential murder cases (legal definitions of first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter 1 and 2, and so forth are provided in the Appendix A). The discussions are highly engaging—both for the students and for us, and support Hillocks’ passionate claim that such debate is essential to teaching English, particularly the “use of language,” as well as to teaching critical thinking (page 142). The chapter includes ideas on choosing problems for discussion.
  • Chapter 6: What Is Courage? Chapters 6 and 7 are especially closely aligned. In this first of the two, Hillocks uses multiple examples, involving characters from Superman to gang members, to help students define what is meant by courage. The result is an elaborate definition that includes six specific criteria and is applicable to any situation.
  • Chapter 7: Argument and Interpretation. This is a chapter many teachers will have been waiting for—but it could not happen without the conceptual support of those preceding. It deals with thinking interpretively about literature. Hillocks suggests (page 177) that we often believe assigning thousands of pages of great literature will make students stronger interpretive readers—when in fact, they need extensive direct instruction. If you’re tired of plot summaries substituting for analysis, this is a chapter for you. Step by step, Hillocks shows us how to teach students to make literary inferences, using an extended example from Stephen Crane’s “A Mystery of Heroism: A Detail of an American Battle.” We see from their discussions about whether the lead character is a hero just how helpful it is for students to have a sense of definition and specific criteria to apply. Such thinking influences both reading and writing.

There are many good teacher resources available—but we get only a few great ones. This is one of the great ones. You’ll want to read it more than once, and you’ll find yourself going back to it frequently. In the end, it isn’t just a book about teaching argument (significant as that is); it’s about good teaching, period. Hillocks himself says it best: “If schools were to adopt a policy of teaching through inquiry, making arguments would be taking place every day in every subject matter from language arts to mathematics. This would make learning more exciting—and much more meaningful” (page 200).

Tips: See our recent post: The Amazing Appendix A. You’ll want to have a quick look at Appendix A ( prior to reading Hillocks’ book. It will give you just the right mindset. Also, plan to read this book (if at all possible) with a study group or at least a partner with whom you can exchange ideas.

George Hillocks Jr. is Professor Emeritus, departments of Education and English Language and Literature, at the University of Chicago. He is a multi-award-winning researcher and writer who has deeply influenced thinking on writing, writing assessment, and classroom-based research over several decades. He is also the author of Narrative Writing (2008).

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll treat you to part 2 of our “Down the Rabbit Hole” discussion in getting ideas for writing. We’ll also continue to identify outstanding informational texts for you to share with students. Thanks for stopping by—and please remember, for the BEST in trait-based PD, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


The Totally Amazing Appendix A

If you are teaching writing with the Common Core Standards in mind, no doubt you have visited the website:  And that means you are familiar with requirements for writing for your grade level–and perhaps others as well. Maybe you’ve even taken time to peruse the Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness. But–have you had a look at Appendix A? Right–the appendix. Not the place most people begin their reading, but in this case, the perfect place to begin. Only a few pages (22 to 25) are devoted to writing, but they are gems.


First, you’ll find extended, helpful, readable definitions of the three text types emphasized in the Standards, namely

  • Informational/explanatory writing
  • Argument
  • Narrative writing

Appendix A makes it clear that each of these “text types” embraces many different sub-genres or forms of writing. For example, informational writing could include everything from an essay on humpback whales to a police report or newspaper article or script for a documentary film. The reason this matters so much is that we often do not think creatively when assigning writing in school. We need to think beyond the traditional research report because, as important as that form is, it’s not sufficient to help students bridge the gap between high school and college or the workplace.

The Wonderful World of Blended Genres

Appendix A also points out that much of our finest writing is a blend of genres. Indeed, any time a writer strings together more than a few paragraphs, it is nearly impossible not to combine genres in some way. My favorite example of this is Bill Bryson’s remarkable book In a Sunburned Country, based on the author’s research and travels to Australia. Bryson’s book seamlessly and deftly combines travel writing, geography, history, informational writing (on countless topics, including topography, wildlife, and cooking), and wildly humorous anecdotes. It’s a book that defies classification–which is precisely what makes it such a treasure.

The Special Place of Argument

A particularly important feature of Appendix A is a thoughtful explanation of just why argument is so important–and so strongly emphasized. Argument, the Standards writers claim, encourages deep thinking. And that in a nutshell is the whole point. Whether it’s oral argument or written, students must think carefully about an issue, give just and respectful consideration to both (or all) sides, weigh evidence, analyze projected outcomes, and guide readers to a good decision. The purpose of argument is not–as is often supposed–to simply get people on your side. This simplistic view often leads students to offer emotional responses or hasty replies that have little or nothing to do with facts or evidence: e.g., Year-round school is a terrible idea because students would hate it, College is not for everyone because we’re all individuals. Note also that the writers use the word “argument” in a special way. This may be splitting semantic hairs, but it’s worth paying attention to . . .

Argument vs. Persuasive Writing

Many of us have used (and continue to use) the term “persuasive writing” in referring to what is essentially the same as the Common Core definition of “argument.” But the Core writers draw a distinction. And that distinction hovers around one word: evidence. A piece may be highly persuasive, but appeal primarily to emotion or (when all else fails) the well-being of the reader. In other words, persuasive pieces are often about passion.

True argument, by contrast, relies on evidence and logical reasoning. This means that the writer needs to do his or her research and examine various perspectives meticulously. This is not to say that the writer won’t make a forceful or compelling case in the end, but underlying all that irresistible oratory will be the heart and soul of any strong argument: reason.

Making the Reading Connection

Many pages of Appendix A are devoted to background and research underlying the Common Core Standards for reading. Though this discussion is detailed, I urge you to take time to read through them–especially considering the implications for writing. It’s no secret that the Core Standards emphasize informational writing and argument. But here’s the thing: Research cited in this discussion reveals that most students read narrative writing almost exclusively. They are not reading much informational writing at all–and what they do read often comes from textbooks. Rarely are these the finest informational models we could offer. Students will write what they read. So the message could not be clearer: If we want students to write informational pieces that actually teach readers something, we need to provide examples of such writing–many of them. Hundreds of them. If you are not reading aloud to your students from the best informational writing you can find, please consider starting. This is one of the most effective ways to create strong informational writers.

A second theme of the Appendix A section on reading: declining complexity. The texts many of our students read is just too simple. It’s been getting simpler since before 1950. What does this mean? Simpler vocabulary, shorter sentences–and in some cases (though by no means all), easier-to-understand concepts. A good argument can be made, of course, for the value of such writing for students who are challenged readers or who are learning English. Absolutely. There’s no debating this. The problem is, when students never encounter text that challenges them, makes them go back, reread, rethink, look up a word, sort through syntax, they are not preparing themselves for the demands of college-level reading. And it can hit them like a wrecking ball.

What can we do about this? We can (1) read to students–even those at primary level–from text that asks them to stretch, text with long and complex sentences and words that are likely new to them, and (2) ask students to read at least short passages that challenge their thinking, and occasionally, to restate such passages in writing, in their own words.

The totally amazing Appendix A is definitely on our recommended reading list. 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll take a further look at the art of writing a good argument, through the eyes of George Hillocks, Jr., and his wonderful new book, Teaching Argument Writing. Thank you for stopping by, and please remember: For the BEST in trait-based writing PD, please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice. 


Author and illustrator Jason Chin, has created another great example for students of what happens when, as an expert, you carefully select interesting and detailed information, organize it simply and effectively, and illustrate in a way that helps readers connect meaningfully to his big ideas.  Take a look…

Coral Reefs by Jason Chin

2011. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press, 40 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Upper elementary through high school

Features: End papers fully illustrated with drawings of the plant and animal residents of coral reefs, a piece by the author in support of reef conservation–”The Threat to Coral Reefs,” cross-section diagrams of key reef features, Author’s note, and for further investigation, a section on sources and resources.


In Coral Reefs, Jason Chin’s second book as both author and illustrator, the author brings to readers an informative, accessible introduction to the intricate world of coral reefs. This book follows the innovative form of the author’s first book, Redwoods (also highly recommended), something Kirkus Reviews called, “…a hybrid form of straightforward nonfiction text and fanciful pictures.” Following the story told through highly detailed color drawings, readers meet a young girl pulling a book entitled Coral Reefs, the very book we are talking about, from the shelf of an old, high-ceilinged city library. Just like you, the reader, she opens the book and begins, of course, reading. Her imagination, sparked by the detailed information she is reading, immediately begins her gradual immersion into the ocean world of a coral reef. As the reader, it’s a new experience—reading the text at the same time as the girl in the book. As “we” read along, walking through the library, learning about soft and hard corals, polyps, algae, coral skeletons, growth, decay, and reef building, readers see her imagination hard at work. Corals of all kinds suddenly appear on the bookshelves and library tables, ocean water is seen rising behind the windows, before bursting through in a flood of splashing waves and sea creatures. “We” are now happily submerged in the watery world of a coral city.


The author’s “hybrid form,” evident in both Coral Reefs and Redwoods, is created by the unique relationship between the text and the illustrations. The young girl in the library is never mentioned in the text—she is not part of the information about coral reefs, yet it is her reading experience that we see visualized in the illustrations. I think her role is to provide what Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2005) calls “context enriched by emotion.” Her visit to the library, and subsequent journey through the text and imaginary coral reef exploration, provides readers with a context that “…sharpens understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else.” (Pink, page 103) It is our emotional connection to the girl’s adventure that helps us process the new terminology and science of coral reefs we learn about in the text. As clear, detailed, and lively as the text is, without the story of the girl, without that visual and emotional context, the information may not stick in readers’ minds. And isn’t that what we want our student writers to do in their informational writing, provide readers with information they can understand and remember?


Bottom line? Jason Chin’s writing and illustrations work together beautifully in Coral Reefs. Readers not only learn a great deal about coral reefs, they also experience the power of reading to transport them to new worlds and the joy that comes with this kind of mind travel. Here are some ideas to put this book to work for you and your students.


In the Classroom

1. Background. Ask students what they may already know about coral reefs and ocean life. Have any/all of your students been to an ocean, played in the sand, or hopped waves on the beach? Have any of them been snorkeling in the ocean or around a coral reef? Have any of your students visited an ocean aquarium? Have you? What was the experience like? Your students may have extensive background knowledge about specific sea creatures –turtles, sharks, or eels. Use that as a starting point to talk about the plant and animal life of coral reefs.

2. Reading. As always, read the book before sharing it with your students. I see a couple different ways to share it. You could share only the pictures first, generating both a list of specific plants and animals they notice and questions they have. Follow this with a reading of both text and pictures looking and listening for answers to their questions. Another approach would be to reverse the order of reading just described—text first to generate questions, then both text and illustrations.  A document camera would be a great tool to use to zoom in on picture details and word details in individual sentences.

3. Detail. As you read, what do you and your students learn about coral reefs that you did not know before? List some of the details and vocabulary that are new to your students or that they find interesting or helpful. (As you know, the Common Core Standards for informational writing emphasize detail.) Look closely for details in the illustrations, as well. Look very closely at the titles of the books on the library shelves.  The author/illustrator took a lot of time and care to create a realistic collection of books. If they are not familiar with some of the classics included, highlight a few for them—Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Captain Blood, The Voyage of the Beagle, etc. (Some of your students may even want to find one or more of these books in your school or community library.)

4. Main idea. Another strategy to really emphasize the information the author is sharing is to isolate all or a portion of the text from the illustrations—look at just the words, as if it were a report. Did the author choose the right kind and right amount of information to help us understand his big ideas? Yes, it’s even better with the illustrations, but does the text stand alone?

What is the author’s main idea? (The CC Standards demand a clear main idea or thesis statement in informational writing.) Where and how does the writer let readers know about his main idea?

5. Organization. Again, you could isolate portions of the text to emphasize important elements of organization. You and your students could examine the introduction, conclusion, transitions/transitional language within or between paragraphs. How does author Chin begin? How does he end? How does he build bridges between big ideas? Be sure your students also experience all the extras this book offers once the “story” is complete—a piece from the author called “The Threat to Coral Reefs,” Cross-section drawings, More facts, Author’s note, and additional information sources. These are all examples of presentation features they could add to their own writing.

6. Word choice. As the “experts” on their topics, writers need to help readers become experts as well, without overwhelming them with too much specialized or technical vocabulary. Writers have to know their audience and purpose, and then choose their words carefully to guide readers through what could be a new topic for them. This book does not have a glossary, a helpful tool for readers to keep track of new words and terminology. So, how about creating one? Read through each sentence and paragraph carefully with your students (or have them work with a partner or small group), looking for words that are the keys to understanding the topic—polyp, algae, lagoon etc., words that may be new to them—rigid, decay, etc., or words that are nearly new to them—species, navigating, environment, etc.   Students could provide a simple definition, a sentence to place the word in context, and/or even a picture to help with reader understanding.

7. Writing. This book is a fantastic introduction to the topic but not the final word on coral reefs. Students could work individually, with a partner, or in small groups to write about coral reefs or one of the many creatures living in and around the reef. The writing could begin with and extend some of the information from the book, or could recount a personal experience with the ocean, beach, or a new idea connected to coral reefs. Student writers may need to do further research to become even more of a topic “expert.” The possibilities for writing are as wide and deep as the ocean—poetry, writing from the perspective of the girl in the book or a sea creature, a piece focusing more on a specific inhabitant of the reef, and so on. Before writing, help your students with the appropriate voice for their writing by thinking about their audience. Are they writing for classmates? Parents or other adults? Younger students?

8. Further research/Persuasive writing. As was suggested previously, students should see all the extras in the back, especially the author’s informative/persuasive piece, “The Threat to Coral Reefs.”  Students may want to learn more about how they can help conserve and save coral reefs even if they don’t live anywhere near one. Each of the author’s suggestions for being “part of the solution” to the threat to reefs could be a launching point for a persuasive piece of their own. These could take the form of traditional persuasive essays or could be more of a public service campaign with students creating ads, posters, slogans, speeches, etc. Don’t overlook the value of firsthand research, though. You may be lucky enough to live close enough for a field trip to an ocean, aquarium, museum, or research center, like the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. (They even allow groups of students to have sleepovers in the aquarium—“Sleep With the Sharks.”  Wow!) Ask your students if they think Jason Chin has explored a coral reef first hand. How does this kind of up close and personal research affect his writing?


Note . . .

Be sure to check out all of Jason Chin’s books by visiting him at

(You can even pre-order his new book, Island: A Story of the Galapagos, due out in the fall of 2012.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Down the Rabbit Hole Part II: Building Memories and Making Connections, Book By Book—we’ll explore the idea of using books to create literary memories/histories/experiences for your students to tap into in their personal writing. Thank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.