10 Essential Writing Lessons

10 Essential Writing Lessons by Megan S. Sloan. 2013. New York: Scholastic.
Reviewed by Vicki Spandel
Genre: Teacher resource
Grade levels: Primary focus is 3 to 5, but teachers at any grade level will find this book helpful
Length: 144 pages, including graphic organizers
Features: Printable graphic organizers, step-by-step lessons and detailed instructions, teacher and student writing samples, expansive list of recommended children’s books

Summary
This book packs a punch. It’s a sleek and concise guide to CCSS essentials for writing, but it’s so much more than this. Its modest 144 pages are filled to the brim with information, ideas, suggestions, and step-by-step guidance that could very well change the way you teach writing—forever. You can finish it over a weekend, but don’t sit down to read without a pencil in one hand and a pack of sticky notes in the other because you’ll be using both. Here’s a brief run-down of the content covered within these 10 Lessons (actual titles differ slightly):

• Learning to think like a writer
• Discovering personal writing topics—and writing a narrative
• Learning to narrow your topic
• Organizing information through multiple paragraphs
• Telling more—the art of using detail
• Writing poetry (exploring language)
• Writing a literary essay
• Writing an informational essay
• Writing an opinion piece
• Writing a research report

Each chapter is referred to as a “Lesson,” but this is a little misleading (in a good way) because every “Lesson” spans multiple days and incorporates numerous mini lessons—along with countless tips and strategies. It’s rare to find a book so short and readable with so much immediately usable content.

Connection to the Common Core is obvious throughout—especially in the second half of the book, which deals with writing across multiple genres. Those looking for a way to meet CCSS requirements will find much to love here because it definitely addresses those concerns but does so in a conversational, down-to-earth style that makes the book highly inviting. Here’s the best part: You can actually picture yourself DOING the very things Megan Sloan does with her students.

Thinking like a writer: The first step
The Common Core doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It really doesn’t. The writing standards are not designed to cover “Everything you ever wanted to know about writing.” And yet, we sometimes read them as if that were the intent—overlooking the fact that the Core focuses on measurable goals. That’s its purpose. But that’s not where good writing instruction begins.

Megan Sloan reminds us that long, long before we measure anything, we begin by helping students think like writers. Lesson 1 (think Chapter 1) lays a foundation for helping them do just that.

First, students are asked to keep a writer’s notebook, a place for jotting down writing ideas, observations, and personal thoughts. Megan asks students to build picture collages in their notebooks, capturing things important to them. This becomes one go-to place for writing ideas throughout the year.

Second, Lesson 1 looks at reasons we read. Students brainstorm the kinds of things they read—everything from texts and emails to books and newspapers—and think why someone wrote these things and who the intended audience might have been. This part of the Lesson echoes Donald Graves’ often quoted remark that writing is the making of reading. Understanding this changes how we see writing—and of course, how we write.

Third, students begin to explore the power of mentor texts—which are featured throughout the book. Early on, Megan shares Eve Bunting’s biography Once Upon a Time. In that book, Bunting explains how she became a writer, how writers work, and where they get their ideas. This prompts valuable discussion among students, who are sometimes surprised to discover how hard professional writers have to work at choosing topics, figuring out how to begin, and making sure their writing moves an audience. With this book, Megan begins creating a writing community that includes everyone, students and professionals alike.

And finally, Megan introduces her students to the concept of listing—an invaluable strategy for generating and organizing thoughts. It’s easier, faster, and more flexible than webbing or outlining, and can be used with any form of writing.

Modeling, modeling, modeling
As we discover in this opening Lesson, Megan models almost everything. She does it in such a natural, here-let-me-show-you sort of way, though, that it’s seamlessly integrated into her instruction—no fuss or fanfare. To kick things off, she brainstorms her own personal lists of Good Times and Bad Times—then picks one of the ideas she’s come up with and writes about it. Students coach her, helping her flesh out the details. Later, she shares the result so they can see and hear the contribution their coaching has made. Next, students work through these same steps, discovering how much easier writing can be when someone has shown you how it looks as it unfolds.

Narrative first
Though all three of the CCSS major genres are covered in the book, Megan begins with narrative. The first five Lessons focus on a blend of narrative/memoir and the foundational skills students need to both think as writers and to function effectively in a writing class—things like choosing and narrowing topics, brainstorming, conferring, working in small groups, learning from mentor texts, coaching peers, asking good questions, and handling feedback well.

Megan doesn’t rush to expose students to all genres as quickly as possible, but proceeds at a manageable pace, beginning with what most writers find familiar and comfortable: writing about themselves, their memories, their families, their experiences. She has confidence that strong beginnings will pay dividends as students move into the genres of informational writing and opinion—and indeed (as we see from writing samples later in the book) they do.

Scaffolding
Megan Sloan has transformed scaffolding into an art form. She has an incredibly keen sense of what students need to know and do in order to take the “next step”—whatever that might be.

Virtually every Lesson opens with an exploration of ideas designed to give students a context for what they’re about to learn: Why do we tell stories? Why do we write informational pieces? What’s an opinion? Armed with a basic understanding of the concept at hand, students are ready for examples.

Examples in Megan’s classroom come in several forms. First, students read or hear mentor texts, which they discuss as a class or in small groups or both. Then, Megan shares her own writing, sometimes writing in front of the class, sometimes reading a draft she’s already written. Next, students create an original example of their own by writing as a whole-class team. It works like this.

Before writing their own pieces, students do shared writing, meaning they compose a draft together under the guidance of the teacher, who records their words—sometimes prompting them with questions. For reluctant or challenged writers, this is extremely non-threatening and highly satisfying. They get all the gratification of composing without the stress that often comes with trying something new and complex.

Finally, students are ready to work individually. By this time, they’ve seen both product and process. They know what the end result should (or at least can) look like. They have seen multiple examples, so they also know that successful outcomes don’t all look the same. This isn’t about formula; it’s about possibilities. Students also know many strategies they can apply, from prewriting through publication. It’s a deceptively simple and overwhelmingly powerful approach to writing instruction.

Conferences
Megan likes to confer with her students as much as possible. However, she doesn’t make rules for herself that no one (at least no one human) can fulfill: e.g., Confer with every student on every piece of writing. Instead, she confers with as many students as time permits, roaming the room to see who’s stuck or has a question.

The key to a good conference, she tells us, is simple: Listen. The writer should do most of the talking: “It is important to leave a student’s writing on his or her lap so to speak” (p. 23). A conference, she says, is a time to provide encouragement—and to ask questions about something that isn’t clear or could use a little expansion.

The conference is always directed by the writer. Megan asks, “What kind of help can I provide?” Knowing they’ll be asked this question encourages students to consider ahead of time what they need most at that moment. Only the writer can know where the real roadblocks are. So Megan gives her students responsibility for helping identify those roadblocks; then they can work together on overcoming them.

Personal Topics = Voice
Underlying all of Megan’s teaching is the importance of choice. There are no topic-specific assignments, no directions to write about “an important family member” or “a time you’ll always remember” or “your most embarrassing or frightening moment.” Instead, she tells us, “It is important for students to discover their own writing topics” because that way “they will value the writing” and “It will be close to their hearts” (23). That’s magical. I’m often asked, “How do we teach voice?” What I’ve learned through the years is that we don’t, really. Instead, we get out of the way. Once we set students free to find the right topic and audience, the excitement that freedom generates spills over as voice.

Lesson 6: Writing Poetry
Without stealing Megan’s thunder by revealing too much detail, I want to draw your attention to two Lessons I particularly loved—one on poetry, one on opinion writing. Lesson 6 deals with poetry.

Students begin by recording favorite lines—in other words, by loving poetry. (If you think about it, isn’t that where poets and songwriters begin, too?)

Then they explore—What do we notice or love about poetry? One student says, “Poems can make us happy, sad, laugh, cry, or tug at our heart” and another says, “Poems are not to be read only once” (62).

They also set about discovering “found” poetry: lines that sound like (and ultimately are) poetry—even if that wasn’t the original intention. With the premiere of the new “Cosmos” (now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on FOX and National Geographic), I couldn’t help thinking of two immortal lines by the late Carl Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos”: We are all star stuff . . . and . . . The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I also thought of the moving words Toni Morrison wrote at the end of her Introduction to Remember: The Journey to School IntegrationThe path was not entered, the gate was not opened, the road was not taken only for those brave enough to walk it. It was for you as well. In every way, this is your story.

Inspiration doesn’t come just from books and video, though. Images from a mentor text can also inspire first lines—and you won’t believe the lines these young writers come up with. They visit an on-campus garden for inspiration, too, noticing daffodils bending into each other—as if “whispering secrets,” one student observes. And so begins another poem.

Poetry continues throughout the year as students add photos to their journals and write about them. Each poem is an exploration of language and a chance to look more closely at the world.

Megan closes by encouraging teachers to experiment with many kinds of poetry: acrostic, haiku, and shape poems. But it’s interesting to me that the focus of this Lesson is on free verse, which as its name implies, frees the writer to concentrate on words and images, not rhymes—which can sound forced. In quiet and subtle ways, this Lesson—like all of them—is teaching students to think.

Lesson 9: Writing an Opinion Piece
Lesson 9 is particularly important because opinion or argument writing is a challenging form, the portion of the CCSS that many teachers find most difficult to dissect. Just turning students loose to state an opinion and “back it with evidence” does not necessarily result in strong writing. There’s simply too much to learn about this form—and often, students aren’t sure where to begin. This Lesson offers some sure footing for those finding the path a bit treacherous.

As usual, Sloan begins at the beginning, with the fundamental question: What is an opinion? Students spend one full period discussing this, charting facts and opinions and learning to understand the difference. The creation of charts is significant (not only for this Lesson, but throughout the book). Students have visual representation of their thinking before them all the time, to reflect on, to question, to expand. It’s a continual reinforcement of what they’re learning and a springboard to new ideas.

For mentor texts, Sloan uses both books and articles, searching carefully for topics that are both controversial and of interest to young readers: e.g., Should a highway be built in Tanzania if it will block the path of migrating animals? Should hawks in New York City be allowed to build a nest on an apartment building—even if it means creating quite an unsightly mess on residents’ balconies?

As students read these pieces, discuss them, and chart their views, they see that controversies have two sides. They’ve chosen a topic—the hawks’ nest—but which side of the controversy are they on? Rebuild the nest—or oppose rebuilding? Is one side stronger than the other? As they quickly discover, answering such questions sometimes requires digging for more information than a single article can offer. And just like that, research on hawks becomes their homework assignment.

By Day 4 of the Lesson, students are planning a piece of shared writing, working together. They’re not drafting yet—they’re making notes and shaping the skeleton of what will become their opinion piece. They begin by brainstorming possible leads, then sketch out a design that includes reasons and support, plus a conclusion. I appreciate how careful Megan is not to turn this plan into a formula. She reminds them that as writers, they may have one, two, or three (or even more) reasons for a given opinion. She is not pushing them toward a five-paragraph essay, but inviting them to construct a guided tour through an issue. By now they’ve chosen a side, and they’re growing increasingly passionate about their argument.

On Day 5, the class works on a draft together. Students do the thinking as Megan records their ideas, guiding them with probing questions that encourage them to think ever more deeply through their argument: Is it important for readers to picture the nest? How can we show that the other side is not as strong as ours? The result is a strong whole-class essay that will serve as a model for the personal writing to come.

Days 6, 7, and 8 are spent moving students toward independence. They generate possible topics of their own, carefully plan their own writing, and begin their drafts. Within days, they have gone from figuring out what an opinion actually is to designing and writing independent drafts on a self-selected topic.

Let’s get excited about research! (Say what?)
As an ardent fan of research, I was thrilled that Megan saved this topic for Lesson 10—the final Lesson of the book. If you remember research as tedious, you may be tempted to skip this Lesson altogether. Please don’t. It’s the frosting on the cake. In Megan’s class, research becomes an opportunity for adventure, an exciting quest for answers to a writer’s burning questions. Throughout Lesson 10, she shows how to actually teach research—not simply assign it. And believe it or not, everyone has a rousing good time.

For the shared writing portion of this Lesson, someone suggests writing about Helen Keller, though admittedly not many of the students have even heard of her. Ironically, that makes Keller the perfect topic because every new bit of information they uncover holds the promise of an artifact at an archaeological dig. By the end of the Lesson, students have discovered that Keller was blind, deaf—and “unruly.” They know about her famous friends, stunning accomplishments, and lifelong passions. At the close of their class paper they write, “Helen Keller inspires us with her determination and courage. She gives us hope and makes us believe we can overcome anything” (129). Such is the power of research—and of extraordinary instruction.

This remarkable Lesson is a fitting place to end the book not only because knowing how to uncover information is a vital part of any writer’s repertoire, but also because it reminds us that good research is not just for the infamous “research paper.” In reality, it’s essential to all genres, including narrative.

Highly Recommended
Megan Sloan shows us how to help students think as writers think, then shows us how to guide them through the fundamentals of three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and opinion. The results are a striking match with the CCSS because the standards focus on the same foundational qualities of good writing that you’ll see emphasized throughout this book: clear central topic, good use of detail, sense of purpose and audience, precise wording, strong organizational flow and transitions, striking beginnings and endings. They also—and we often forget this part—highlight the value of research. The standards emphasize what we must do; Megan’s book shows us how.

I urge you to buy 10 Essential Writing Lessons. It will take you right inside the classroom of a master teacher who is herself a writer, and who finds great joy in the teaching of writing. You will love the journey.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ve focused recently on opinion writing and argument. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Common Core informational writing standards, with a few recommended mentor texts for both elementary and secondary students. Until then, thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you like our site, please tell your friends about us. The more, the merrier. Remember, for the BEST workshops and classroom demo’s blending traits, CCSS, and stellar literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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