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A review by Jeff Hicks

Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts by Thomas Newkirk. 2014. Heinemann.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades K through 16

Features: Glossary.

Personal Note: There are a few things I need to say about this book before any introduction or summary. At 146 pages, it’s a slim volume, yet it took me a couple weeks to read it. That doesn’t sound like a selling point, but I think it’s a tribute to the depth of Thomas Newkirk’s message. As I read, I found myself in a constant (and fluctuating) state of reflection, confirmation, affirmation, and imagining. These are all positive states to be in! I would have to pause my reading to think about past lessons, to jot down a powerful quote I wanted to remember, to sketch out a lesson idea I wanted to try with my Wednesday fifth graders or my Tuesday eighth graders, or to find my own examples of a specific kind of writing/reading he was describing. Being the old-school guy that I am, I used note cards for scribbling down all my notes and thoughts. I stuffed these into the back of the book and found myself reviewing them before I dove back into the next section. This kind of interaction with a book’s content doesn’t happen with every book I read. I am still carrying—literally and figuratively—this book (and note cards) around with me, talking about it with teacher friends and school board colleagues. And now I’m handing it off to you—figuratively of course. I’m not letting go of my copy just yet.

“Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought…It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.” The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. 1996.

“Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

“Story…sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

“When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. 2005.

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April 5, 2012: “Test Drive Jason Chin’s “Hybrid” Book, Coral Reefs

March 28, 2013: “Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build-and-Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”

October 1, 2013: “Reports and Poetry—Inspired by Walt Whitman and Loren Long”

These quotes—connections from previous reading—and STG post references are some of the things I wrote down on my note cards as I read Thomas Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. I was going to include a picture of my cards, but I had problems uploading photos from my old-school phone. (I need to get a new phone, but I’m scared to go into the store—too many questions, choices, and options.)

Introduction:

In Minds Made for Stories, author Thomas Newkirk offers to readers a much-needed philosophical shift and tweak to classroom instructional approaches based on the CCSS’s narrow “…triumvirate of narrative, informational, and argument writing…” (Page 6) To the author, this seemingly tidy packaging of forms or modes is “…a clear instance of a ‘category error’…a classification based on conflicting principles…A category error would be to ask someone if they wanted dessert or ice cream. The answer could obviously be both.”

Mr. Newkirk’s contention is that, yes, narrative is a mode or form, but it is the “mother of all modes.” Narrative can be used by writers to do all sorts of things—entertain, argue, persuade, inform, etc. Narrative can’t and shouldn’t be boxed up and delivered as something taught in the elementary grades, while the boxes of argument and informational writing are reserved for middle and high school. Writing (and reading) instruction needs to be more fluid and nuanced than that. Newkirk spotlights the essential connections between both the acts of reading and writing and the instructional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing. He suggests that readers engaged in sustained reading, as opposed to extractive reading, are staying with the author’s “story,” the “drama” or the “plot,” regardless of the type of text—novel, research piece, opinion or persuasive essay, etc.

“So here is my modest proposition. That narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing. All good writing. We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information (a major problem with some textbooks)—because we are given no frame for comprehension.” (Page 19)

To follow Mr. Newkirk, here is my modest proposition. That this book is an important read for teachers, administrators, and anyone involved in translating standards into classroom practices. I’m going to highlight some of the things I recorded on my note cards—ideas, recommendations, guiding principles, revelations, etc. I will elaborate (offer personal and classroom connections) on some things and simply point out others for you to dwell on—shoot up the flagpole, so to speak. I can’t share everything, so my best suggestion is to just read the book. After all, it’s only 146 pages. You’re on your own for note cards.

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“No More Hamburgers”—Something to Ponder…

If writing is (truly) the making of reading, then writing instruction has to help young writers focus on imagining their audiences in the act of reading their writing, in the act of sustained reading. Newkirk describes sustained reading as involving “‘staying with’ the writer as ideas are developed…” Yet, when students are taught to employ rigid formulas, readers are forced into extractive mode, looking for bits of information, thesis in the opening paragraph, first evidence/example in the second paragraph, I’ve reached the fifth paragraph—this must be the conclusion, and so on. You know the “Hamburger” format—top bun is the introduction, bottom bun the conclusion, the meat represents the body of the writing? Now, I know there are many variations on this model, but Newkirk argues that by emphasizing static structures—the “hamburger,” five-paragraph essay, etc.—we have not provided young writers the “…guidance in how writers maintain the loyal attention of readers. We have presented form as a visual structure, not as a series of ‘moves.’” (Page 18) And it is this sense of “movement” through time, provided by the deep structure of narrative that sustains readers and helps them completely commit to the nonfiction text.

*An Example

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You may already be familiar with Ben Hillman’s books, including How Big Is It?, How Fast Is It?, How Strong Is It?, How Weird Is It? These books offer teachers and students great examples of 6-7 paragraphs “reports” on, in the case of my example book, really big things. These reports don’t follow a strict “hamburger,” “essay,” or topic sentence-detail-detail-detail-commentary/transition format. In his “report” on page 21, “Dragonfly of the Carboniferous,” he tells readers about the giant insects of the Carboniferous Period (before dinosaurs), focusing on the dragonfly of the time, a beast with a wingspan of over two feet! Because the author is not chained to a rigid structure, he allows us to slip into the “drama” of this insect’s world, filling us in on the conditions necessary for this giant bug’s existence, setting the stage for the dragonfly’s big entrance in paragraph…six! As the title suggests, Mr. Hillman does provide readers with plenty of size specifications—he lets us know exactly how big these things were, with all sorts of numbers and measurements. But he also puts his text side by side with amazing photos/illustrations/artistic renderings of each object immersed in its own revealing “story.” We have become committed and sustained readers.

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“Everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or nothing.”

Robert Frost

“Only a Magician”—Resolving an Instructional Conflict

Mr. Newkirk makes it clear that if we want our students to be able to write arguments or informational pieces, we do have to teach them the “conventions” of these genres. As teachers, we can’t make the leap of faith that because students have read fiction, and written fictional or autobiographical stories, they must be able to write argument or informational pieces. “Only a magician could think that.” (Page 28) If narrative is indeed the “mother of all modes,” “the deep structure of all good writing,” then the tools of narrative—the drama or trouble, plot—“itches to be scratched,” connection/comparison to human activity and needs, the sense of a real person being there with you from beginning to end—need to be taught as well, and not boxed up as a unit done in grade X or Y. Readers are (or should be) constantly asking What’s the story? Writers need to be there, inviting them in and urging them on with itches and scratches.

*An Example–

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The book, The Wolverine Way (Patagonia, 2010), a non-fiction study/back country adventure/natural history by author/wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, got me “itching” first on the book jacket. Wolverines are touted as “Glutton, Demon of Destruction, Symbol of Slaughter, Mightiest of Wilderness Villains, a Reputation Based on Myth and Fancy.” That sounds like trouble brewing! Will his study confirm the mythology or reveal something different? In the book’s prologue, after telling a story (!) about meeting a miner whose face had been disfigured by a wolverine, the author, who was seventeen at the time, makes a promise to himself to “…steer clear of wolverines and never let one up close. That seemed an easy enough vow to keep. Who runs into wolverines?” Major dramatic itch! Like the worst case of poison oak! I was committed now—I couldn’t wait to get scratching.

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“Voice”—The Reason to Keep Reading

Mr. Newkirk presents voice as “a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide…The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” (Page 38) Those of us whose teaching is steeped in the six traits know well the importance of voice, especially in nonfiction writing. As writers, if we are going to create a sustained reading experience, we have to let readers know we are there with them and for them. How do we do that? By carefully choosing the right words—active verbs, precise nouns, vivid descriptors. By varying sentence lengths and structures. By becoming enthusiastic “experts” on our topics. When students are confident with their information, their readers will feel it and know they are in good hands.

* Examples–

1) Here’s paragraph #2 (in its entirety) from a ninth grade student’s 5-paragraph essay about To Kill a Mockingbird (the voice of an “expert”?)—

Fairness is one of the many interesting themes in this great book. The main character Atticus shows the importance of fairness by the way he tries to treat others. Other characters demonstrate fairness as well.

2) Here’s a short passage from a sixth grade student’s writing about what it might have been like to be in a Civil War battle—

I glance nervously at the army’s power as they come, as if nothing could stop them. Horses trot, flaring their nostrils as icy cool breath shoots out of their noses. A long line of flashes fly down the line. Men fall on either side of me. Red liquid sprays like mist with every flash.

Are you pulled in by the writer’s “expertise”? Word choices? Drama/story? Do you sense a “guide”? That’s voice!

3) Here’s a sample from a first grader’s description of his cat—

She had black, white, and brown wobbly stripes. She let me pull a little on her tail. That’s not common about cats. She liked me petting her with strokes from her neck down to her tail.

This young writer is an enthusiastic expert on his cat and as readers, we can really feel it.

Read proudly — put the duty of being read invariably on the author. If he is not read, whose fault is it? I am quite ready to be charmed, but I shall not make-believe I am charmed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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“Two Absurdly Simple Rules”

Author Newkirk offers this boiled down advice—

  1. Read as if it is a story.
  2. Write as if it is a story. (Page 43)

These rules, on the surface, do seem simple, but their simplicity is profound. In rule number one, the rule that may seem to run counter to the reading of informational texts, Mr. Newkirk is proposing that readers, regardless of the type of text—novels, arguments, reports, plays—read for the story, the drama, the plot behind the issue that initially prompted the writing.

“Seven Textbook Sins”

The following is a list of textbook writing tendencies that put up barriers to the possibility of sustained reading. This list can be used as a set of warning signs for student writers, cautionary tales of bumps to avoid in their own writing. For student use, they could be rewritten into positive “dos” rather than “don’ts.”

  1. Flatness (“Refusal to create human interest.” Page 56)
  2. Overuse of “To Be” Verbs and Passive Constructions (Page 58)
  3.  Piling On (overwhelming readers with lists, terminology, technical Page 60)
  4. Refusal to Surprise (Page 62)
  5. Lack of a Point of View (The writer, the “guide” is absent. Page 63)
  6. The Refusal of Metaphor and Analogy (Page 65)
  7. Ignoring the Human Need for Alternation (Monotonous tone. Page 67)

* An Example–

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I realize that National Geographic magazine is not a textbook in the traditional sense—for good reason. The writing is too strong! Their articles and amazing photography are, in my mind, free of any of the sins listed above. Here’s a taste from an article—“The Age of Disbelief”—in the March 2015 issue, describing why so many people still struggle with believing scientific “truths” supported by evidence.

“The media would also have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that it usually advances incrementally, through steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years. So it has been with the consensus on climate change. That’s not about to go poof with the next thermometer reading.” (Pages 41-44)

Final Thoughts

There is so much more to say about Minds Made for Stories, so the only thing to do is read the book. As I said, for a slim volume, it’s loaded with practical applications to classroom teaching, philosophical fodder for those trying to wrap their heads around Common Core, and it should all keep you excited to be a literacy teacher in today’s world. I will leave you with two more bits from the book, in case you didn’t have enough to ponder.

“If the goal of reading nonfiction is to retain what we read—a reasonable assumption—attention is crucial, for we generally don’t retain things we don’t attend to…No attention, no comprehension.” (Pages 71-72)

“Reading and writing are a form of travel, through time, and writers need to create the conditions for attention…the tools and skills we normally associate with literature are essential to maintaining attention, and enabling comprehension and critical thinking.” (Page 72)

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Pictured–author Thomas Newkirk, whose book is featured here. To find out more about Mr. Newkirk and his many other books, please visit:

www.heinemann.com/authors/902.aspx

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki is back after an amazing Australian and New Zealand adventure! I think she has nearly a thousand pictures to share—“Here I am with a kangaroo,” “Here I am with another kangaroo–no, wait, it’s a wallaby,” “Here I am running from one of the world’s ten deadliest snakes,” “Here I am running from one of the world’s five deadliest snakes–no wait, it’s a wallaby…” Just kidding! She will be sharing her thoughts and worldly wisdom about one of her recent reads or just sharing her worldly wisdom on a topic important to you and your students. (And maybe a picture or two.) Meantime, welcome back from spring/Easter break, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at Gurus. Come often, and bring friends. And remember . . . give every child a voice.

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