Category: Assessment


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Be a Better Writer, 2nd edition by Steve Peha, with Margot Carmichael Lester. 2016. Carrboro, NC: Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: Steve himself says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10 to 16,” but honestly, you can adapt ideas in this book for just about any grade level. It would make a terrific gift for kids heading to college—and I also recommend it as a resource for adult professional writers as well as for teachers or writing coaches.

Features: Easy to use lists, charts, and techniques for handy reference; writing samples to show what works and what doesn’t—and how revision unfolds; interviews with well-known writers who offer their wisdom and suggestions; numerous activities to use on your own or in the classroom from Day 1.

Introduction

I had a hunch I would like this book as soon as I saw the cover—and no, I don’t pay any attention to that old adage. Truth is, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. From this one with its bright colors, whimsical art, and encouraging little notes, I could tell I would be in the hands of someone who (1) probably has a sense of humor about his own writing, and (2) genuinely cares about helping writers of all ages, especially those who find writing difficult at times (and that’s most of us). Some professional resource book authors are so eager to dazzle us with their own genius that they forget how intimidating, how overwhelming writing can seem to readers. Authors with attitude always make me want to say, “Hey, pssst!! Remember us? Your audience?” After all, the underlying purpose of a resource like this should be to answer questions real writers, especially students, ask most: What should I write about? Where can I get ideas? How do I begin? How do I end? What’s a detail? How do I organize all this information I dug up in my research? Who the heck will read this and what do they care about? How do I make my writing sound more like me?

 This book answers every one of these questions, and countless others—and does so in a way that makes the information entertaining as well as easy to understand and recall. It’s not a lecture; it’s a conversation. What’s more, Steve Peha and his co-author Margot Carmichael Lester (who also happens to be Steve’s wife) have gone out of their way to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—tips on sequencing, ideas for good leads, sample endings, thoughts on transitions, guidelines for solid sentences, and more. The secret lies in the layout, which is masterful. Subheads in big—really big—print, charts, lists, and other eye catching features make it easy to take in and process volumes of information. Ever go into a store that seemed to have everything you wanted, all arranged right where you could find it? That’s how it feels to read Be a Better Writer.

The book is written right to students (or any readers looking for guidance on writing well) in a voice that’s friendly, often humorous, and always knowing. You can tell immediately that these are seasoned writers, that everything you struggle with they’ve struggled with, too. Steve is refreshingly honest about his own learning curve: “I know that for some of us, writing is hard. That’s how it was for me in school. I was good at math. I could read. But writing was a mystery, one I didn’t solve until I started helping other people solve it for themselves” (p. 4). Someone who’s fought his own writing demons gives good advice because he knows exactly what advice we’re most likely to need, from topic choice right down to dealing with those pesky commas. Steve and Margot know their stuff, and know how to make a book on writing fun to read. thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-with-background.jpg

I sat down with this book intending to read a sample chapter or two, and was immediately delighted to have the author tell me two things I never expected to hear: (1) You don’t have to read this whole book, and (2) You don’t have to read it in order. I don’t? Gee . . . It’s always a relief to get permission for something you were probably going to do anyway—like skim. While savoring this newfound freedom, I actually did read the whole book—all of it, in order, and in one sitting. Yes, it was that good. Yes, it was that engaging. And yes, you are going to love it, too.

 

Everything That Matters

Too many resource books try to cover everything. I have a few of those. They’re too big to lift, but ideal for door stops. This book thankfully takes a more discretionary approach. It concentrates, very effectively, on “what matters most.”

In the opening chapter, Steve gives us a stunning “world of writing” overview. He writes about logic, good beginnings, effective description, using easy techniques to get yourself moving when you’re stuck, applying the ingenious “what-why-how” strategy when writing an essay test, getting and using good feedback, and ways to know when you’re finished writing: in short, the “most important” issues writers encounter in their everyday lives. This big picture chapter provides the foundation for the enormously rich discussions that follow, but equally important, it offers a beginning writer assurance: Yes, you can do this. Even if you learn and use just three or four strategies from this book, Steve tells us, you’ll be a better writer. Three or four? you say to yourself—Heck, I can do that! Yes, you can, and now you’ve grasped the underlying theme of the book: making writing do-able, one strategy at a time.

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The Top 10. That first chapter and all others open with what is hands down my favorite feature: “10 Things You Need to Know Even If You Don’t Read This Chapter.” I’m certain—I’d bet on it—that you can name six writers right off the top of your head that you wish had used that approach. The “10 Things You Need to Know” opener works on so many levels. First, it gives me a quick preview of the upcoming chapter—which makes my reading infinitely more efficient. Second, it allows me to focus on the sub-topics I need most. And finally, it gives me a simple way to review later so I can recall key points or look something up.

Targeting good writing. Six of the other eight chapters cover topics that define the heart of good writing: “Better Topics,” “Better Ideas,” “Better Organization,” “Better Voice,” “Better Words,” and “Better Sentences.” The book doesn’t cover everything you ever wanted to know about conventions plus a few things you didn’t (just one more thing to love about it), but does offer excellent chapter on “Better Punctuation” that also includes an editorial nod to paragraphing and capitalization. Steve, with his characteristic sense of humor, has a good time showing how punctuation can alter meaning in even a short sentence like Herman Melville’s classic opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” (Think about it until you get your own copy; try punctuating it as many ways as you can.)

I cannot say whether this was intentional (and it doesn’t matter), but Be a Better Writer is extremely “trait friendly.” If you teach the six traits to your students, you will find this book filled with activities you can use for that purpose. But wait, there’s more . . .

The book also devotes a whole chapter to “Better Fiction,” so just in case you’re reading it not so much to teach writing as to get your own work published, here’s a chapter you’ll savor—and if you’re like me, it will have you rolling up your sleeves and revising in your head even before you finish reading it.

Organization Plus

The book is beautifully organized, and next to the confident, upbeat voice, this is the characteristic I appreciated most. The pacing is quick and lively, and chapters include recurring features that I quickly learned to look for, like these five:

Feature 1: Terrific checklists. Every chapter features an enormously useful checklist related to the subject at hand. For example, Chapter Two offers us “Your Checklist for Better Topics.” Like most writers, I am constantly in search of a good topic, so I devoured this list. Steve is particularly good at coming up with questions students can ask themselves and he embeds these into the checklist: “What ideas and details will encourage readers to follow my piece all the way to the end? What will make them feel like it was worth the time and effort they get to spend there?” (p. 35) Questions like these remind me that writing well requires us not only to think like readers but to offer our audience something in return for the gift of their time and commitment.

Feature 2: Samples—and lessons in modeling. Each chapter includes one or more writing examples, some written by Steve and many written by students. In this chapter, Steve uses a piece of his own writing, titled “My Father’s Gift,” to illustrate the difficulties inherent in “Tackling Tough Topics,” things that are just plain hard to write about because our emotions get in the way. He helps us understand how pushing ourselves into topics that make us uncomfortable forces us to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. Here’s a quick summary of Steve’s story:

Steve’s father, a man without a lot of money to spend, has given 10-year-old Steve a gift in a manila envelope, and waits eagerly for his son to open it. They are not close, and there’s a palpable tension between them. Days go by, and Steve still has not opened the gift, so has to lie when his father questions him about it. When he finally does look inside, he discovers that the envelope contains valuable photographs of his favorite team, the Washington Huskies. Even though he likes and appreciates the photos, he doesn’t safeguard them, nor does he fully acknowledge the value of the gift. Years later, needing to raise money in a hurry, he remembers the photos and decides to sell them—only to discover he has inadvertently sent them off with the trash while cleaning out his room. Realizing what he has done, and imagining how his father would react if he knew, sets off a chain of conflicting emotions that make this story of giving and receiving hard to resolve—but Steve writes a strong ending about “where giving and forgiving meet, and grace abides” (p. 52).

When I show teachers how to model writing, I encourage them to do something that doesn’t come easily to most: to think out loud, sharing the way writing unfolds in the writer’s mind. Students need to know why we begin or end a certain way, why we add a phrase or delete a word. Most teachers understand this instinctively, but somehow the act of actually sharing their thinking aloud with students feels awkward, and makes many self-conscious. That’s why I wanted to cheer when I finished the story and then read Steve’s description of his own writing process. It’s precisely the kind of sharing that helps kids understand how writing works: “I had an easy time with the beginning,” he reveals, “but it took many tries to write the ending” (p 35). He explains that he had to realize his story was about forgiveness before he could get the ending right. “When I was thinking only about the fact that my piece needed an ending, I wrote many endings, but never one that captured what I wanted to say because I hadn’t thought at all about what that was.”

There are two lessons here: One, an ending needs a message. And two, students learn so much by getting inside a working writer’s head. This book takes them there—to where the writing happens. I cannot think of another writing resource book that does this so well.

Feature 3: The Unexpected. Everyone loves surprises, and Be a Better Writer delivers. Though it has recurring features, it’s never formulaic. Chapter Two, for instance, includes a section that made me sit up and take notice: “Topic Choice When You Have No Choice.” Think “on-demand writing.”

Back in the day, when my writing assessment team and I were reading literally thousands of stories and essays for county, district, and state writing assessments, all of us wondered how it could be that though students were often writing to the very same prompt, some managed to make their writing irresistibly engaging, read-out-loud funny, or heart stoppingly moving, while others were clearly so bored it was a wonder they could push their pencils across the paper. The secret lies in learning to personalize a topic. How does a writer do that?

Try Steve’s “Topic Equation Strategy,” in which Interest + Subject = Topic. Without giving away too much of Steve’s thunder, let me say that this equation simply calls for coupling your assigned subject—say it’s climate change—with something that interests you, like whales, perhaps. Instead of writing in a broad brushstroke kind of way about climate change, you might ask, How is climate change affecting whales, and will they survive it? Will warming ocean waters disturb their migration cycle, and what will they eat if all the krill die? Now you have a topic that will keep both you and your readers awake. Solving a problem (e.g., the dreaded assigned topic) that has plagued students and teachers for generations is a stroke of genius, and for me, this solution alone makes the book worth its purchase price.

Feature 4: Interviews. Among the book’s most intriguing features are interviews with various writers of note who talk about how they became writers and offer advice to beginners in the craft. The authors chose their interviewees well; each has something memorable to say. Among my favorite moments are these lines from Luis J. Rodriguez, known for his books of memoir, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Asked why he writes, Rodriguez says, “To heal. To dance. To wake up something beastly as well as something beautiful. I write to stay alive.”

Feature 5: Activities, activities. All chapters wrap up with a list of activities you can try (as a student, or as a teacher/coach working with students), and they range from easy to challenging, quick to extended. Sometimes Steve invites us to journal a character or try transforming a telling statement to a showing one, and other times we’re asked to write a letter, experiment with organization, collect beginnings and endings, or write a piece in a whole new voice. What makes these activities so authentic and appealing is that they’re things Steve himself has tried as a writer. And as he reminds us at the beginning of the book, we do not have to do all the activities. We can pick and choose. But this is guaranteed: If we do enough of them, our writing will improve.

Miss Margot’s Role

Co-author Margot Carmichael Lester is a journalist and author. She offers her journalist’s perspective throughout the book, and it’s a great balance because by her own admission, she leans toward nonfiction and opinion writing. Like all good journalists, she knows the value of writing concisely and cutting what isn’t needed. Though she offers us many good pieces of advice throughout the book, I think this one has to be my favorite: “When I have too many details, I re-evaluate them. If a detail doesn’t support the main idea, it’s out. If it doesn’t lead people to think feel, or do what I want them to, it’s gone. If it doesn’t answer a critical question or objection from the reader, it’s toast.” I love a ruthless editor, and ruthlessness is a quality more students need to cultivate as writers. Hack away, Miss Margot (p. 73).

Hidden Gems

You may have noticed that you can always tell which resource books were worth your while because the best ones are eventually filled with highlighted passages and raggedy sticky notes. That’s because readers have highlighted, circled, underlined, and commented on the book’s hidden gems, little bits of wisdom that aren’t paraded before us in any obvious way, but just wait there tucked inside the folds of text, waiting to be discovered. Here are just a handful of the quotable moments I noticed while reading Be a Better Writer. Have a highlighter and pencil handy when you read your own copy because you will find many more moments like these:

  1.  “The key to descriptive writing is making a picture in your mind and using words and phrases that help readers make the same picture in theirs” (p. 11).
  2. “Getting feedback isn’t just finding out why some people like your writing and others don’t. It’s about getting precise information about how to improve your work” (p. 27).
  3. “Life experience is the greatest source of topic ideas you’ll ever have” (p. 33).
  4. “Think of your teachers as editors” (p. 36).
  5. “If you’re like many writers, you’ll come back to the same topics again and again” (p. 57).
  6. “Voice is the most important quality in your work because it influences all of the other qualities” (p. 157).
  7. “Draft like you talk and revise like you read” (p. 189)

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Not surprisingly, Be a Better Writer has enjoyed overwhelming popularity since its release. If you’d like a copy of your own or want more information, here are some links that will help:

 To get the book on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

http://bit.ly/babw-free-ch1

To see Steve’s newsletter:

http://bit.ly/steve-peha-newsletter

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon-author-page

Steve and Margot are offering a huge discount (40%) thru June 30 for schools ordering 25+ copies by PO.

http://bit.ly/babw-po-discount

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Jeff and I say goodbye for the summer–just for the summer!!

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We have gained many new fans over recent months, and we have you to thank! Like many of you, Jeff and I are going to take a summer break to do some traveling and spend time with our families. We will return in the fall with more reviews and thoughts about teaching writing well. Writing isn’t just our occupation—it’s our passion. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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My first suggestion for you is to make sure you’ve read Vicki Spandel’s post from late January, “Rubrics Revisited.” I’ve lifted the title of my post directly from Vicki’s piece, because it resonated so strongly to me. So feel free to take a few moments to check it out!

Vicki’s latest post, “Rubrics Revisited,” has been rolling around inside my head since I first read it, so much so that I’d like to briefly revisit her revisiting. I’ve been doing some substitute teaching this school year, mostly with fifth grade students at the elementary school four blocks from my house but including a few days here and there at middle and high school. Recently, I’ve also been helping the high school son of a good friend–I’ll refer to him as Student K–with some of his writing for his senior Lit and Comp class. Vicki’s spot-on comments about rubrics, or writing guides (as we prefer to call them), rang so many bells with my recent classroom experiences, and especially my work with Student K, that I felt the need to toss out my own thoughts and reflections. I want to focus my comments on one particular statement Vicki makes early in her post (the underlining is mine): “My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?” And, of course, it should be the goal and the foundation of powerful writing instruction in the classroom.

Before I get going, I want to make sure one thing is clear. When I substitute or work with individual students, I don’t judge the teachers I’m filling in for or those who have assigned the writing I’m helping a student work through. Seriously—that’s not my job. Neither Vicki nor I have ever suggested that there’s only one way to teach writing. We’ve focused our efforts on identifying the philosophies, the strategies, and the practices that work (and have worked over time)—across all grade levels—to develop confident, accomplished young writers. However, I do notice things—classroom routines, a room’s physical set up, instructional practices, the way students respond to directions, and the way students react to and approach writing in the classroom. I do encounter amazing teachers and classrooms all the time, and I don’t call them amazing because they do things exactly as I would. But I also find and am frustrated by, truth be told, missed opportunities in many classrooms especially when it comes to using “rubrics” and personal comments to communicate with student writers as part of writing instruction. (I’m pretty sure that sounds judgmental even if that’s not my intention.)

What follows are a few of my takeaways from Vicki’s post filtered through years in my own classroom, my work with teachers as a professional development presenter, my current work as a substitute teacher, and focused on several of these instructional missed opportunities uncovered during my very recent work with a senior in high school, Student K.

Student K’s Story—Instructional “Missed Opportunities”

Student K came to me wanting some help on an end-of-semester writing assignment for his grade 12 Lit and Comp class. His task was to fictionalize an actual crime story—factual reportage—similar to the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He could not exceed a thousand words and would be assessed with a 4-point, 4-part task-specific rubric. (I’ve included a photo later.) This rubric was handed out at the onset of the assignment. The descriptors broke down levels of performance across four learning targets:

1—I can select and apply effective words and syntax.

2—I can use correct conventions (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) in my writing.

3—I can write narrative pieces.

4—I can use the writing process to improve my writing.

Student K based his writing on a pair of robberies at a local convenience store committed by two high school age boys. (The boys robbed the same store, with the same clerk at the register, within a two-week span.) He had an initial outline, notes from research, two rough drafts—one with “comments” from the teacher, and a copy of the rubric. I would describe my work with Student K as an extended revision conference—we met three days in a row after school for about 90 minutes each visit. (NoteI am absolutely aware that this kind of one-on-one time with a student writer is a luxury and impossible to have during school hours with a classroom full of students regardless of the grade level.) We started with a look at his second rough draft to see what kind of feedback his teacher had provided. What we discovered was, in my mind, a missed opportunity.

Missed Opportunity—As Vicki emphasized in her post, “…a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision…” Student K’s rough draft did not contain any formative feedback from the rubric. None! The only feedback to Student K were comments related to the paper’s formatting—the word “header” had been written at the top of each page and “works cited/word count” was written on the last page. This is not the kind of specific feedback that opens the to door to meaningful revision. From teacher feedback like this, Student K (or any student) could make the assumption that everything else about the piece was at least “OK—good to go.”

Student writers need to know both what they’re doing well and what they might need to work on to improve their piece. I like to use a feedback term/practice borrowed from a colleague—Stars and a Staircase. Star comments let the student writer know what’s really working in their piece, reinforcing their strengths, while Staircase comments hone in on specific areas where the reader is experiencing confusion or needing to ask questions. These comments help guide the writer’s revision, moving their piece up the “staircase.” As Vicki states in her post, “Just saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘ I loved this piece!’ isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece…” Feedback, in the form of “scores” or descriptors from a writing guide or written comments from the reader/teacher, is not only about addressing the current piece or assignment, it’s about arming student writers with the tools, confidence, and independence for “the next piece.”

So, in an attempt to nurture the independence that meaningful, specific feedback is able to provide a student writer, the first thing I asked Student K to do was to read his piece out loud with a pen in his hand. While reading his own work aloud, he is both “reader” and “writer.” If he stumbles over something, it’s more than likely that any other reader would as well. The pen was for marking anything he was confused by or didn’t like and for making quick changes/corrections—spelling, missing words, punctuation, sequencing, etc. He was well over his word limit (let the record show that I’m not a fan of “word counts”), so he was also on the lookout for words/phrases/sentences he could eliminate. The pen was also for him to notice and highlight what he felt (as the reader) was working well. We didn’t total up the number of times his pen hit his paper, but it was well over twenty. We did, however, categorize the things he noticed in his own work—here are a few:

*Repetitive word choices

            *Moments of confusion

            *Repetitive transitional language—lots of “and thens”

            *Missing transitions between paragraphs

            *Repeated sentence beginnings—He, The, They, etc.

            *Confusing conclusion—(confused by his own conclusion!)

            *Inconsistent verb tense

            *Figurative language     

I asked him to reflect on this, and the first thing he said was, “I noticed a lot!” Absolutely—imagine that! I asked him to describe a highlight (a Star) and a work-light (a Staircase-something to work on) from his read-through. Student K gave himself a Star for two examples of figurative language he used while describing the two young men featured in his piece:

Example #1“He once was a nice young boy, the type of kid that your parents would want you to hang out with and have as a friend. However, after he took advantage of a female classmate while she was intoxicated at a party, everything changed. Everything. Now people hesitated to make eye contact with him, as if he was Medusa.”

Example #2—“Harris looked older than most of the kids in his grade because he actually was. Being held back two years gives you that certain look. Even in kindergarten, the teachers used to shake their heads, almost as if they could already see the path he was headed towards. Timothy was not the traveler that Robert Frost wrote about. No matter what two roads diverged in front of him, he always took the wrong path. At 2:30 in the morning, when most people are sleeping, the wrong path led Timothy, with his partner in tow, to the Plaid Pantry convenience store.”

Neither of these examples attracted any attention from Student K’s teacher even though the rubric for this task emphasizes the use of figurative language in learning target #3—I can write narrative pieces. Student K’s Staircase comments for himself focused on eliminating/replacing repetitive word choices and sentence beginnings, and on the clarity of his conclusion—he didn’t like the way his piece ended.

At this point, I wanted him to “assess” (not score, not grade) his own writing again, this time using the rubric he had been given. I suggested he look for descriptors—not worrying about the “score”—that he felt matched his writing. He found at least one in each of the four categories, but it was not easy for two reasons.

Missed Opportunity—First, he told me that in this class, he had not used a rubric to “assess” his own writing in this way before. He had also not experienced the practice of using a rubric to “assess” anyone else’s writing. (Deep—possibly judgmental—sigh!) Borrowing words from Vicki’s post again, I (we) believe students need to have “…regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising…” both the writing of others, “…students and professionals…” and their own writing. This practice develops independence in student writers who, over time, begin to take charge of their own writing process. In a classroom setting, the discourse (discussion) between students (and the teacher) as they “assess” writing samples, clarifies exactly how a rubric will be used when their own writing is being “assessed” by the teacher using the same rubric. Student K experienced a second problem as he attempted to use the rubric himself. The descriptors in the task-specific rubric he had were really more of a checklist of all the things the teacher would be looking for—“There is correct use of dialogue…,” “There is some use of imagery that appeals to the senses…,” “There are 2 + rough drafts included…,” “Story opens with complete background information…” The reality was that his personal assessment became a process of going through the rubric in a “Got-it, Got-it, Need-it…” manner. For me, that’s one of the problems with many task-specific rubrics. It’s possible to say ”Check!” to each of listed items—Task completed!—and still end up with a piece of writing that is missing something important to the overall quality of the writing—the experience of the reader/audience, the reason for writing in the first place.

Following Student K’s two rounds of personal “assessment,” I did offer some of my own feedback but focused my comments/help on a few of the items he had noticed himself, particularly his conclusion. I left Student K loaded down with a pile of his own revision suggestions, sprinkled with a few of my own.

Just last week, Student K let me know he had received his writing back with a rubric score and a grade, and of course, I was anxious to hear about it.

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Missed Opportunity—The pictures I’ve included here show the rubric as it was returned to Student K. Based on the X marks, we determined that his rubric scores on the four learning targets were 2, 3, 3, 3. I asked him what the scores meant to him and he replied, “That means I got a B.” We then looked at the paper to review the written comments. (By this point I’m admitting that the judgmental gloves are off!) Student K decided he had found a tiny Star at the end of the comment: “A long falling action but fitting resolution.” Reacting to the handful of Staircase comments—“Use better description,” “Be specific,” “What neighborhood?” “You need much more on this climax! “—Student K said (exactly what I was thinking), “Why didn’t he say something about these on my rough draft?” What really baffled me was that the rubric scores and the written comments, whether taken separately or in combination, had not communicated a clear message to the writer. Quality writing assessment had not been achieved! If Student K’s only takeaway was that he had received a “B,” the teacher could have saved time by not using the rubric or writing even limited comments. Just slap a “B” at the top and move on to the next assignment. (Now that’s judgmental!) Many teachers will say that it takes too much time to use rubrics and personal comments. I contend that by nurturing the independence of student writers—arming them with writing guides and training them to be self-assessors first—actually saves assessment time for teachers.

Knock—Knock! Bang—Bang! Ding—Dong!

Who’s at the door? It’s Opportunity! That’s one of the things you can count on as a teacher—lots of opportunities for taking advantage of instructional opportunities! If your goal as a writing teacher is developing confident, capable student writers, then for me, the path is quality instruction informed by quality assessment. As Vicki urged at the end of her post, “It all comes back to concepts.” And to teach the concepts of good writing, it takes specific practices: First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.”

Opening clear, purposeful lines of communication between you and your student writers is what is most important in helping them know where they stand as writers today and where they could be standing tomorrow.

Reading Recommendations

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

  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  • Soul Serenade: Rhythm and Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

I have been binge-reading the YA books of author Andrew Smith and want to share some thoughts about this powerful writer. His books are definitely for the grade 9+ crowd, dealing with sensitive, timely, and important issues. His characters and storylines are brutally honest, frequently strange, and often laugh-out-loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reading Recommendations

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

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

between the world and meroomghost maporphan master's son

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

 

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

 

Brief Introduction by Vicki

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

Kingdom of Diddorol Poster

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

In Larry’s Own Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingdom of Diddorol

Kingdom of Diddorol

The Core

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

The Basics

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

Topic Choice + Two Traits

Topic Choice + Two Traits

The Complications

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

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

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

0 XP   = start point

225     = a passing grade (D-)

300     = D

600     = C

900     = B

1400    = A

1800 XP is required to get an A+.

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

Here’s how it would work:

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

Student Brainstorming

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

Here is the scoring form I used for each competition:

Score Form

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

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

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

Another Topic Choice

Another Topic Choice

The Schedule

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

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

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

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Diddorol Admission Ticket

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

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

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

Variations

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

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

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

More Topic Choices

More Topic Choices

Some Conclusions

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

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

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

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: You

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

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

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

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Me

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

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

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

 

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

 

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Bridging the Gap

A review by Vicki Spandel

Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core by Lesley Roessing. 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. Foreword by Barry Lane.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades 5 through 12, but adaptable for younger or older students

Features: Chapter by chapter list of recommended published memoirs to share aloud with students (Appendix A); a more extended list of published memoirs to explore (Appendix B); reproducible forms, including full-sized charts, from various lessons throughout the book (Appendix D).

Introduction

Memoir! It’s that magical genre with the power to ignite fires within all of us—first, because we get to read about the incredible real lives of fascinating people, and second because we get to write about the people who fascinate us most of all: ourselves.

Have another look at that subtitle: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. You’re probably thinking “Common Core,” and if so, you’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. Far from it. Bridging the Gap is a book aimed at helping students get to the core of who they are. And in so doing, they learn more than you might think about the world around them—and about writing.

Lesley Roessing’s inspiring new book shows teachers how to transform the study of memoir into something much bigger, namely, a journey of self-discovery, as well as a stepping stone into serious  informational writing and argument. As students ask probing and important questions about themselves—Who am I? Where did I come from? What people, places, or events shaped my life?—they develop a passion for writing that influences both content and voice. Plus, almost inevitably, they wind up delving into multiple genres.

Though memoir requires reflective thought, planning, and narrative skill, answering those questions of family, history, and heritage often calls for research, too—digging to learn more about that country your grandfather came from, the place you lived when you were first born, that second job your dad or mom once held. Along the way, young writers may also discover what they value most, and become inspired to defend those values. Such feelings of conviction mark the beginning of genuine, compelling argument—argument based on internal beliefs, not a topic randomly imposed from without.

Here’s a book that gets it right. It views memoir as a gateway to writing, allowing students to begin with the topic they know best—themselves—then branch out into a more diverse literary world through research and personal exploration of what they value most and why. Bridging the Gap is extraordinarily readable, like having a conversation with Lesley Roessing herself. It’s entertaining (filled with first-rate student examples), inspiring, and jam packed with intriguing lessons on—what else?—putting your whole self into your writing.

Memoir: What is it?

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoir) defines memoir this way:

Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the author’s life . . . Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life . . .

Note that memoir is nonfiction. It’s fact-based. Hence the research component, which could mean anything from interviews, observations, and journeys through attics or old family albums to Internet research or hours spent on Ancestry.com. Also note the distinction between memoir and autobiography: the latter tells the story of a life—while the former tells a story from a life, identifying and reflecting on milestones that have made a difference. A student’s ability to look back and pick out the moments that mattered (instead of listing “every single thing that ever happened to me from birth until right this minute”) is what gives memoir its instructional power—and its punch. Identifying touchstone moments is only the beginning, though.

Building Bridges

In the course of the book, author/teacher Lesley Roessing shows how to use memoir to build—

  1. A bridge across the achievement gap . . . because every single student comes to these lessons with background knowledge, thereby helping to level the playing field.
  2. A bridge to meaningful writing . . . because students find their voice when they can write about what they know best (their own lives), choose personally important topics, and select forms they love through which to share their lives—a poem or graphic book, say, in place of a traditional research paper.
  3. A bridge from fiction to nonfiction . . . because while memoir is narrative in form, it is also nonfiction. It’s not invented—it’s truth. And telling the truth requires digging for facts.
  4. A bridge to argument . . . because in writing memoir, students uncover interesting details that inspire them to form opinions, take sides, question values, develop new positions.
  5. A bridge from reading to writing . . . because the study of memoir begins with the sharing of others’ works, everything from poems and song lyrics to plays and picture books, and requires reading like a writer, absorbing lessons students can later apply to their own writing.

If you’d like to see your students grow as writers right before your eyes, this is your book. Students gain skills with every lesson. They learn to plan and organize writing, to function within a writing community where others’ ideas and ways of expressing them are respected, and to read like writers, noticing and borrowing strategies from every professional writer whose work they encounter. In the course of the book, students have opportunities to—

  • Brainstorm and choose writing-worthy moments from their lives
  • Explore the memoirs of others, including authors like Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Soto, Roald Dahl, Jack Gantos, Billy Collins, and many, many more
  • Practice writing memoirs of their own—memoirs of time, place, or people, just to name a few
  • Examine the traits or characteristics that define good writing
  • Use those traits to evaluate their own writing and that of others
  • Choose a favorite form (poetry, drama, picture book, etc.) to showcase their own work
  • Share their work aloud
  • Publish
  • Connect what they have learned to components of the Common Core standards for both reading and writing

You may be thinking that a book with this much to offer will either be (1) so large you can’t lift it, or (2) so dry and print-dense you won’t want to read it. Trust me, this book is neither.

Practicality—and Process

I don’t know how you read books, but I always begin by leafing through, just to get a feeling for what I’m going to encounter. I’m curious (especially when reading textbooks) to see whether the writer will offer me something practical—things like examples, real student work, easy-to-follow lists of things I can do in an upcoming lesson, things I can model without extensive rehearsal, recommendations, tables or charts I could copy for use with students, and so on.

Robt Smalls 8th Graders

My first thought on leafing through Roessing’s book? There is so much here I can use—right away. I am a big fan of practical; it’s perhaps my number one criterion in evaluating any textbook. Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a “50 Quick Lessons” kind of book all. Though it’s a treasure trove of practical, usable lessons and printable handouts, it’s written with the understanding and insight that only come from a lifetime of teaching. It goes deep into the writing process, beginning at the beginning—where ideas come from.

photo(1)

Right up front, Roessing gives me what I’m looking for—a foundation. In thoughtful words, she lays out why memoir is important: what it is, and why we should teach it. Best of all, she separates memoir from a simple list of “stuff that happened”:

Adolescents do not spend much time reminiscing; they rarely think about their pasts or talk about memories. However, writing teachers advise them to “write what they know.” And unfortunately they do; they write endlessly about going to the mall, fighting with girlfriends over boys, or trying out for the cheerleading squad or the football team or relate the saga of a fictional sports context, point by point . . . Young writers haven’t yet learned that, to professional writers, these types of events are the settings—the background or catalysts—to larger plots and truths. (p. 3)

I’m only on page 3. But already I know this is an author I can trust. She knows writing, and she knows students. I’m ready to sign on for the journey.

Thoughtful Organization

In addition to being written with conviction and voice, Bridging the Gap is beautifully organized. The book is divided into three large sections:

  • Learning about Memoir
  • Drafting Diverse Memoirs (relating to time, objects, places, people, crises, personal history)
  • Final Writing and Publishing

Students begin by defining in their own minds what memoir is all about, reading expansively to build understanding; then rehearse by drafting several different kinds of memoirs (adding to their understanding while stretching their own writing capabilities); and then wrap up by publishing their work.

Each of the three major sections contains multiple short, highly focused chapters with detailed explanations of what to do in the classroom, specific resources to share, things to model, and countless  examples of original work by teachers, students, and professionals. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community. We are all writers, Roessing is telling us, all in this writing adventure together, all seeking the words that will create meaning for someone else.

Skill Building

Chapters are short enough to read within a few minutes. I love this feature. Chapter 1, for example, focuses on the use of sensory details to inspire memories that may be buried deep within us. It runs only half a dozen pages or so, but within that short span, Roessing deals effectively with—

  • Free writing as a way of inspiring memories (Her explanation of free writing is superb)
  • Reading personal work aloud and creating a safe environment in which that can succeed
  • Using a picture book—in this case Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox—as a model
  • Exploring the power of sensory details—particularly taste and smell—to trigger long buried memories
  • Illustrating the power of sensory detail through an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
  • Modeling, as a teacher, how sensory details recall the past (The smell of lemon conjures up times at the drugstore with her mother, the sound of whistling brings back memories of a father who whistled all the time)
  • Teaching students to chart their own memories in various ways
  • Modeling the writing and sharing of an original piece

This is teaching at its finest. Students are given professional models to read (or hear), discuss, and learn from. Then in addition, they see the teacher doing what she is asking them to do. They see her using sensory details to call up memories that might otherwise remain dormant—and then showing them how to take those details to the next level: the start of a story. Notice what is happening here. Instead of simply saying, “I want you to write a memoir,” Roessing has defined the genre for students, given them examples to read and discuss, and helped them understand the impact of such writing on readers. They can see and feel how both process and product look. They have the understanding they need to begin—and to move forward with confidence. Best of all, they’ve made progress. A sense of progress is essential to good writing instruction because without this feeling of forward momentum students lose both confidence and motivation.

By the end of Chapter 2, students are moving forward at a heady pace, identifying the characteristics of a good memoir. By the end of Chapter 3, they are collecting quotations from favorite works and charting their own responses to various memoirs as they read them.

Every chapter includes models, examples, and recommended resources, such as books to read aloud. Each is carefully written to build on what has gone before, helping students climb the ladder to writing success, one step at a time.

Traveling Across the Curriculum

I love talking about killer endings, and this book has one—a whole chapter befittingly titled “Conclusion: Where We Have Been and Where We Can Go from Here.” As this excellent conclusion shows, memoir isn’t just for language arts anymore. It can also be part of social studies, history, science, and even mathematics. Roessing begins by listing some recommended memoirs from these various genres to read and discuss, then offers suggestions for extending students’ memoir writing into other classes. Bravo.

Link to Common Core

If you’re living these days with one eye on the Common Core, you’ll love this feature. Each chapter closes with a brief and clear link showing how the lessons just presented relate to specific (yes, they’re numbered) Common Core standards. No guessing. And the number of standards covered, for both reading and writing, is impressive to say the least. That’s the good news.

Now for the really good news: Although the strategies and skills taught in this book are unquestionably connected to the Common Core, Roessing never deals with Core issues in a heavy-handed way: i.e., “Here’s how to comply.” There’s not one shred of formula within these pages. Not one must-do directive. As a teacher, you will have complete freedom to choose the literature you share, model those steps you feel comfortable sharing, and guide students through a process for writing in your own way. You can be as innovative as your imagination will allow. And your students will gain essential Common Core skills while writing in a joyful way that allows them to find their own voice. Of all the bridges Roessing builds in this book, this bridge to independence may be the trickiest. But build it she does.

Read on your own? Or in a study group?

You can surely read this book on your own and begin using the lessons in it virtually immediately. If you love memoir already (reading it, writing it, teaching it), you’ll fall in love with the book from page 1—and I venture to say you won’t be able to wait to get it into your classroom.

If you’re new to memoir, or to the teaching of writing, you might wish to explore the book within the context of a study group. The book lends itself beautifully to discussion—and is an excellent guide to use in trying some memoir writing on your own, which will give you even more confidence in teaching this highly rewarding genre. Following are a few suggestions for discussion questions or activities to enhance the Study Group experience:

  1.  Reading. Scan the extraordinarily helpful Appendix B, a dazzling list of published memoirs for readers and writers of all ages. Choose a few selections from this list (perhaps one or two per study group member) to read thoughtfully, introduce to the group, and discuss. Each person might identify a short passage or two to share aloud, identifying the characteristics that make that particular memoir memorable or worthwhile to share with students. (Study Group participants who have favorite memoirs not on this list should feel free to share those as well, of course.)
  2. Traits of good memoir. Continue reading examples from Appendix B throughout the time the Study Group meets—perhaps for several weeks. As you read, identify characteristics of a good memoir. Make a list. Later, you can use this list as a basis for an assessment rubric (if you want one), or you can share it with students and invite them to add to it based on their own reading.
  3. Recording memories. Follow some of the strategies presented in the first two chapters (e.g., use of sensory details) to prompt personal memories. Make notes, lists, charts, or whatever works to record those memories. Share them with the group or just with one partner, and use them to write a paragraph that could be the start of a longer piece.
  4. Writing a short memoir. Following Roessing’s lead, think about the different things that could mark a touchstone in your own life: time (e.g., first year teaching, year of graduation, travel, a move, marriage or birth of a child), a person who made an impression on you, a place significant for you, an object that has emotional significance, a pet that was part of your life, a decision that affected you. Using examples from Chapters 4 through 10 as models, create a brief memoir of your own in any form that appeals to you: a poem, an essay, a short story, a short drama, a graphic text, an obituary, or whatever works for you as a writer. Share results with the group or with a partner. (Note: It may take more than one study group session to plan, develop, and share memoirs. Do not rush the process. Give your creative juices time to flow.)
  5. Rubric or checklist. Thinking of the memoirs you have read and written, and the initial list of characteristics you compiled as a group to define a strong memoir, create a rubric or checklist you could use to assess memoirs. It can be as simple as a checklist that indicates which important characteristics are present in a particular memoir. Don’t make it too elaborate or you will get hung up in the development of the rubric and probably never get to the important part: using it! Assess your own work first. Be honest—but gentle! And if your rubric needs adjusting or revision, make those changes together. Then, as a group, assess a professional writer’s memoir. Pick something short for this practice, and discuss the process of assessment. What do you learn as an assessor that you cannot learn as a writer or reader? Finally, as a group, assess any piece of student work from the book. As you do so, ask yourself this most important of all assessment questions: “What would the student learn from this assessment that would benefit him/her as a writer?” If you can answer that question readily and expansively, your rubric is a success.
  6. Taking it to your classroom. Close by discussing the benefits of teaching memoir. What do students learn through this exceptional writing journey? Remember to think of the many side roads traveled—such as the use of research to illuminate events or situations from the past that are not wholly clear in the writer’s memory. List all the benefits you can think of, remembering to focus on both reading and writing. Then discuss why and how you will consider teaching memoir in your own classroom.
  7. Distinctions. What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? How will you help your students make this distinction?
  8. Research. This one’s for the memoir enthusiasts out there! The genre of memoir is ancient, as you’ll discover if you research it. Memoirs provided an early form of history books, after all. Consider looking into some of the earliest memoirs: Who wrote them? Who read them? How has the genre reinvented itself for modern times? Whose memoir would you most like to read—if he or she would only write it?

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Author Lesley Roessing, whose work is featured here, was a high school and middle school teacher for over 20 years before becoming director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re excited to announce that prolific author Sneed B. Collard III has just released yet another book—Fire Birds! It’s an outstanding example of nonfiction writing for younger readers, and we’ll be reviewing it here on Gurus shortly. Meantime, welcome back from the winter 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.

vicki_jeff_small

by Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks

Conclusions & Conventions

FEATURE 7: Conclusions

In writing, only one thing trumps a good lead, and that is a killer conclusion—Ahab going down with the ship, or Atticus Finch, waiting for Jem to wake up in the morning, or this famous, often quoted one-liner:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Now that’s satisfying—mostly because we’ve waited so long to hear Rhett utter those words. But imagine if Margaret Mitchell, in a moment of insanity, had written, “And then Scarlett woke up—and it was all a dream!” Cancel those movie rights. Hell hath no fury like a reader lacking resolution.

According to the CCSS, endings need to wrap things up without offending readers’ sense of logic. Surprises are fine—but lunacy doesn’t work.

 the tale of despereaux

Happily ever after? Not always . . .

Writers have to use their heads. In The Tale of Despereaux (2003) by Kate DiCamillo, for example, the author addresses the “happily ever after” question head on, assuring us that her ending will not be the ultimate cliché we expect from fables and fairy tales:

And what of Despereaux? Did he live happily ever after? Well, he did not marry the princess, if that’s what you mean by happily ever after. Even in a world as strange as this one, a mouse and a princess cannot marry.

But reader, they can be friends.

And they were. Together they had many adventures. Those adventures, however, are another story, and this story, I’m afraid, must now draw to a close. (267)

 Notice the silver lining amidst all that disappointment. The good, the bad, and . . . well, you know. That’s one kind of ending. What other sorts are there?

  1. Coming full circle—In this sort of ending, the writer finds a way to tie the ending to the beginning. Readers love this. (For a masterful example of this concept, check out Barry Lane’s very funny book The Tortoise and the Hare . . . continued.)
  2. End of the journey—This satisfying sort of conclusion marks the end of a search, the solution to a problem, the solving of a mystery, or something similar. Margaret Mitchell’s fitting ending to her Civil War love story is one example.
  3. The prediction—Forecasting what will (or could) happen can be a powerful way to close an informational piece or argument because readers love looking into the crystal ball.
  4. The solution—The writer poses a problem early on, and then offers one or more solutions, usually wrapping up with the best.
  5. The fitting quotation—A quotation that perfectly encapsulates the writer’s message or argument can provide a highly provocative, memorable ending.
  6. The epilogue—It might be fun to see Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird), Huckleberry Finn, or Scarlett O’Hara twenty years down the road, embarking on new adventures or (in some cases) suffering the consequences of unfortunate choices.

Deadliest of them all

A good ending follows from and builds upon what has come before—but it does not repeat. The deadliest ending of them all is the one that takes us back over the trail just traveled. You know how it goes. It begins with those dreaded words In conclusion . . . And the author goes on (relentlessly) to list the three main points or arguments just made. Enough! We get it. Formula writers are hard to stop.

Instead of releasing energy like a leaky balloon, informational or argumentative endings should build in momentum until they explode with a mind blowing revelation or irrefutable last line. They should leave us saying, Of course! Why did I not see this before??!!

In “Room 9, Car 1430” (1985), author Ursula K. LeGuin argues that we should love trains more than airplanes because they allow us to travel—well, reflectively. To gaze out the window at beautiful scenery, to ride in comfort with space for our legs and reading materials, to eat at tables with linens and flowers “instead of being strapped into a seat with a plastic latter of stuff slapped down in front of you, like a kid in a high chair.” I’m already convinced, but she’s just getting started . . .

Writing as she crosses the Cascades, LeGuin delineates the advantages of train travel—all the while acknowledging that sometimes (as when heading to a funeral) speed is of the essence. You have to give opposing voices their due. She saves her strongest argument for last, bringing everything together with these spirited lines: “The plane, with its tremendous inefficiency as a passenger vehicle, is the anachronism. It is out of date. An administration seeking a sound economy would (like Japan and most European countries) be refunding its passenger train system, enlarging and improving it. Not wrecking it through underfunding and then, like a spoiled kid with a toy he doesn’t understand, trashing it.”

You feel the energy building in LeGuin’s argument, like a train charging down the track. She can’t inflame us like that and then tack on this limp ending: “So in conclusion then, the three advantages of train travel . . .” That’s how arguments are lost. And this is a writer who has never set out to lose an argument. If formula were a dragon, she would be St. George.

 

More endings to avoid at all costs

One good revision tip is to occasionally begin revising in the middle—instead of automatically starting with the first sentence you write. Revision is hard work, and if you begin to tire halfway through, the ending will always suffer. Begin in the middle, though, and you’ll still have enough steam left at the end to avoid easy-out endings like these:

  • And then I woke up and it was all a dream.
  • There’s more to tell, but that’s all I have time for right now.
  • I hope you enjoyed my story (paper, essay, etc.) and learned a lot.
  • So, cats or dogs—there are good things about both! Which one would YOU choose?
  • More research needs to be done in this vital area.
  • Perhaps the future will reveal answers to these important questions.
  • This remains a source of continual mystery for mankind.

Favorites from literature One of the best ways to learn how to write a good ending is to study what other writers have done. Become a collector and encourage students to do the same. Here are just a handful of my favorites. As you read through them, you might ask yourself what these (or favorites of your own) have in common. Is it something about the writing itself? Or is it the feelings they conjure up within you, the reader?

  • The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.    ~George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.      ~Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture to his horse a private one. He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker. Somewhere in the high country that once was Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit.    ~Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit
  • He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.      ~George Orwell, 1984
  • However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.     ~Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  •  At the moment, the pig palace stands empty. People ask, “Will you get another pig?” This I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.     ~Sy Montgomery, The Good, Good Pig
  •  Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.      ~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  •  We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.     ~Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style
  •  And what dance would you do if you were a seahorse? Not just any dance. Heads together, tails entwined, you would dance the tango.     ~Twig C. George, Seahorses
  •  I buried her with her halter and two of the three ribbons she had won. Later that night I went back to her grave—“Ginweed,” I said, “we had a heck of a good time together,” and I walked away from the grassless patch of earth.   ~8th grade student, writing about the 4-H calf he had raised
  •  Fox and I still visit the pond, but it’ll never be like them three years when she was mine.    ~8th grade student, writing about his dog and the pond they both loved

Questions to ask

Following are some questions for writers to ask as they write a conclusion:

  • What’s the most burning question in readers’ minds right now?
  • Is there one significant detail I haven’t shared yet?
  • What’s the irrefutable clincher to this argument?
  • What do readers think will happen—and should that happen, or should I surprise them?
  • What do I want readers to leave thinking about?
  • What do I want readers to believe after reading this?
  • What’s the most obvious ending—and how can I avoid it?
  • Should I have stopped a paragraph—or a whole page—ago?

TEACHING Conclusions

Here are six things you can do to help students write strong endings of their own:

  1. Brainstorm endings to avoid. Then I woke up and it was all a dream seems an obvious cliché to teachers, but students use it all the time. Make a list of “easy out” endings, the ones writers use when they run out of time, energy, or patience. Keep the list posted as a reminder not to get lazy at the end; the conclusion is the writer’s best chance to make a powerful statement.
  2. Collect endings that work. In this post, I’m sharing only a handful. You and your students can collect dozens more. Look beyond books. Good endings come in periodicals, newspapers—even ads. Expand your discussion to talk about TV or film endings, too. (Remember the Breaking Bad finale?) Students who are visual appreciate connecting with endings they can see and hear, not just take in through words.
  3. What makes good endings work? Talk about this with students. Good endings have things in common: They make us (as readers) reflect or remember, suggest new possibilities, strengthen a conclusion the writer hopes we’ve reached (or will reach), give us something to ponder, answer a pressing question, satisfy curiosity, shock or surprise us—and more. Discuss the role of a good ending, and keep this discussion going as you add to your collection of favorites.
  4. Have a bad endings contest. Students love this. Choose a well-known story—it can be anything from a fable or fairy tale to a popular film or television show. Have students rewrite the ending in a way that definitely does NOT work—and talk about why. Maybe the wicked stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” opens a counseling service. Maybe Walter White pens the pilot for a sitcom.
  5. Revise. Provide students with an unfinished story, informational piece, or argument (just chop off the final paragraph or two—whatever amount of text you think constitutes the ending). You can use anything from a news story to a short story, op ed piece, or essay. Then follow these steps: (1) Provide students with the story/article minus the ending. (2) Discuss expectations—how do they think it will end, might end, should end? (3) Have students write an ending that they believe fits, and finally, (4) Provide the actual ending and do a critique—does it work? Why or why not? How does it compare with what students wrote?
  6. Follow some good advice. Some of the best advice on endings EVER comes from Roy Peter Clark in his excellent (highly recommended!) book Writing Tools (2006, 192). It is, fittingly, the conclusion to his chapter/essay titled “Write toward an ending.” He says, “I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal ballad. Don’t bury your ending. Put your hand over the last paragraph. Ask yourself, ‘What would happen if this ended here?’ Move up another paragraph and ask the same question until you find the natural stopping place.”

writing tools

FEATURE 8: Conventions—and Presentation

On 9/16/14 (Stop the Sea of Red Ink!), I wrote extensively about teaching conventions. Check that post for many details on teaching students to be strong editors.

Meanwhile, let’s look briefly at CCSS expectations for conventions, and then close with some ideas for teaching both conventions and presentation.

What does the CCSS demand?

The CCSS expectations relating to conventions are somewhat lacking in detail—presumably to grant teachers freedom to teach conventions as they see fit. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Correct spelling
  • Correct use of punctuation
  • Correct use of pronouns
  • Correct use of intensive pronouns (myself, herself, etc.)
  • No unnecessary shifts in number or person
  • No vague pronoun references
  • Recognition and avoidance of non-standard usage

At upper levels, especially grades 11 and 12, they add the following:

  • Understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and can be contested.
  • Skill in using relevant resources, such as a thesaurus or dictionary.
  • Skill in varying sentence patterns to increase readability and improve style.

Notes on these last three bullets

These last three bullets—those pertaining to upper grade students—are particularly interesting. The first two call for thinking skills and application of those skills, things that can only be measured through elaborately and carefully designed performance assessment. (This has serious, not-to-be-ignored implications for testing.) The third one has nothing to do with conventions—though as I’ll point out, it is vital just the same.

 Bullet 1: I cheered when I read about the understanding of conventional evolution. This, to my mind, is more significant than all the other conventions-related standards combined. It is, however, difficult to imagine how this would be measured—certainly not through multiple choice, fill-in, short answer, or true and false questions: e.g., True or false: Language is evolving.  No—typical assessment strategies won’t work here. We need observation of behavior over time by highly skilled, qualified persons who are sensitive to the ways in which language shifts—and who can recognize the signs of change in writing. Such assessment is not only monumentally difficult, but poses potential hazards for young writers even when well done. What if their writing reflects no homage to recent fluctuations? Does that mean it’s below standard? On the other hand, if a student begins sentences with And, favors fragments, uses double punctuation (?!),or uses words like hashtag, selfie, crowdfunding, and wackadoo, is this a sign he/she is linguistically evolved? And what of the person scoring this student’s work? How does he/she feel about our ever evolving language? Not everyone is a fan of change.

We must be careful to distinguish between standards, those things we have a right to expect and sufficient skill to assess—and goals or wishes, things we hope for, measurable or not. Despite this complex and treacherous web we’ve woven for ourselves, I applaud the CCSS for encouraging students to recognize language as vital and in flux. As Patricia T. O’Conner says in her engaging book Woe Is I, the “quirks, the surprises, the ever-changing nature of English—these are the differences between a living language and a dead one.”

Bullet 2: Again—effective use of resources is an admirable goal, but one difficult to assess with any validity under timed or controlled conditions. Writers who make extensive and efficient use of resources under normal writing conditions may not have the time or opportunity, under the constraints typical of most writing assessments, to show what they can do when unfettered. Nevertheless, quality writing and research demand that students become proficient with a wide range of resources, from print to Internet. This means that use of resources must be taught, even if not assessed.

Bullet 3: Varied sentence patterns: Well—music to my ears. Fans of 6-trait writing will recognize this description as belonging to our old friend Sentence Fluency, aka Trait #5. You might have thought this trait was missing from the CCSS, but it was only hiding out among the conventions. Fluency does indeed enhance both clarity and style—and can surely be assessed, as we have shown for 30 years now. Dust off your old 6-trait writing guide (or better yet, 6th edition of Creating Writers) for numerous ideas on how to teach this important trait.

CW6 Cover

Just how important IS fluency? A study conducted by the Oregon Department of Education in the 1980s showed that in fact, sentence fluency was the most important single indicator of how professional readers would score a paper. Does that surprise you? Well—it surprised me. I would have voted for voice or conventions. But, no. As it turns out, one of the best ways to entertain, educate, or convince readers is to give them sentences that

  • Vary in style
  • Vary in length
  • Begin with meaningful transitional words or phrases
  • Flow smoothly and rhythmically, inviting oral reading

Good to know. (Important to teach.)

The MOST Common Conventional Errors

You cannot teach everything relating to conventions. You couldn’t even if you had years to prepare, so be smart. Focus on the trouble spots. Following are 15 of the most common errors students (and in fact, pretty much all writers) make. If your students can avoid these, they’ll have a distinct advantage in any assessment:

  • Incorrect double pronoun: Example: Did anyone leave their books behind? Instead, write: Did anyone leave his or her books behind? English, unfortunately, has no universal pronoun to replace their—and these days, “his books” is considered sexist. Who knows? Their—once acceptable—may make a comeback, but it’s not there yet, so it’s best avoided as a replacement for “his or her.”
  • Incorrect pronoun as a sentence subject: Example: Me and him have been friends forever. Instead, write: He and I have been friends forever. You wouldn’t say Me has been his friend forever or Him has been my friend forever, so Me and him makes no sense.
  • Use of good instead of well: Example: You did good, kid! Instead, write: You did well. “You did good” is popular usage these days, but it is not standard and is unacceptable in any formal context—such as a CCSS writing assessment.
  • Incorrect use of intensive or reflective pronouns (the “selfie” gang): Such pronouns can be used reflectively: Louise prepared herself for the relatives. Or they can be used intensively: Louise herself finished off the spaghetti. They should not be used to replace other pronouns, such as I or me, in a vain attempt to make a sentence more elegant. Examples: NOT Jack and myself loved the movie, BUT Jack and I loved the movie. NOT It’s a party for Bill and myself, BUT It’s a party for Bill and me.
  • Vague pronoun reference: Example: Just before Wiley pounced on Catfish, he let out a mighty roar. Who let out the mighty roar? Wiley or Catfish? Instead, write one of the following: Just before pouncing on Catfish, Wiley let out a mighty roar. OR, Just before Wiley pounced on him, Catfish let out a mighty roar.
  • Missing commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause: This one befuddles everyone (mostly thanks to excessively formal terminology), but it’s really simple. Instead of “nonrestrictive,” think “nonessential.” In other words, it’s a clause that adds an interesting tidbit of information, but it isn’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence. When that’s the case, it should be set off by commas. Otherwise, it should not. Consider the difference between these two sentences: 1) The firefighter who rescued the child was given a medal. 2) The firefighter, who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, was given a medal. The expression who rescued the child is restrictive; it is essential to the full meaning of the sentence because presumably, the rescue was the reason he was awarded the medal. The expression who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday is incidental, not essential to the meaning of the sentence—but more of an “oh by the way” comment. Therefore, it requires commas. Commas used in this way are a sort of “parentheses light.”
  • Comma splice: A splice puts two things—like strips of film—together. Unfortunately, commas do not perform this task well, and a comma cannot join two sentences (independent clauses). Example: Jim hated dogs they always seemed to bite him. Instead, write: Jim hated dogs; they always seemed to bite him. OR Jim hated dogs. They always seemed to bite him. OR Because they always seemed to bite him, Jim hated dogs.
  • Confusion of it’s and its: Here’s another easy one that pops up all the time. Remember it this way: it’s (with the apostrophe) is a contraction. All the time. No exceptions. It can stand for it is or it has: It’s raining. OR, It’s been days since we talked! Unless you mean “it is” or “it has,” write its: NOT Its too late for apologies, BUT It’s too late for apologies. NOT A turtle never sleeps on it’s back, BUT A turtle never sleeps on its back.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in tense: Moving suddenly from past to present or the reverse can create confusion for readers. Tenses should remain constant unless there’s a logical reason for the shift. Example: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she starts laughing. Instead, write: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she started laughing. Example: I am running down the path when I spotted a coyote. Instead, write: I am running down the path when I spot a coyote. OR, I was running down the path when I spotted a coyote.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in person: This often comes from an almost obsessive avoidance of the pronoun “I,” as if it’s rude to refer to one’s own feelings or thoughts, and more polite to shift the attention to you. The resulting sentences, though, can be awkward. Example: I was almost to the finish line when you could feel your legs cramping. Why would I get cramps when YOU are the one running? This makes no sense. Instead, write: I was almost to the finish line when I could feel my legs cramping. Example: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and you couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it. Instead, write: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and we couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it.
  • Inappropriate tense: For some reason, this error has become widespread in novels. Doesn’t anyone use past perfect anymore? Example: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian jumped. This doesn’t work because Ian has already jumped by the time Jill gets there; one thing happens before the other, and the verb tenses need to show this. Instead, write: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian had jumped. Example: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty ate it. This sounds as if she ate it right in front of him—it’s not likely that’s what the writer means. Instead, write: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty had eaten it. She’s not sadistic; she just has the munchies.
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement: Several things can trigger this mistake. One is beginning a sentence with “There.” Example: There is many reasons I struggle with geography. For some reason, “is” often feels right following “There.” But in this case, the plural “reasons” calls for a plural verb, so write: There are many reasons I struggle with geography. Another culprit is a complex subject. Example: The box of sausages are packed tightly. It’s box, not sausages, that is the sentence subject. Instead, write: The box of sausages is packed tightly. Similarly, compound sentence subjects can cause confusion—especially if they are separated by a few words. Example: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus is the main attraction at the aquarium. Despite the wordiness, the simple subject is still seahorses and octopus, a plural. Instead, write: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus are the main attractions at the aquarium.
  • Wrong verb form following the word “or”: When a subject includes the word “or,” the verb matches the word following “or.” Example: Brussels sprouts or asparagus are on the menu tonight. Instead, write: Brussels sprouts or asparagus is on the menu tonight. Example: Ben or Rudy are scheduled to sing tonight. Since Rudy (the subject following or) is singular, you want to write this instead: Ben or Rudy is scheduled to sing tonight. (By the way, do not look for your grammar checker to catch this one. Most won’t!)
  • Misplaced or dangling modifiers: Misplaced modifiers are great for comic relief, but they can create confusion. Example: We saw the dolphins leaping and diving through our binoculars. How Disney! Instead, write: Through our binoculars, we saw the dolphins leaping and diving. Example: After drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult. Hold on. Is the snow drifting—or are we drifting? Instead, write: After drifting down for hours, the snow would make the drive difficult. OR, After it had been drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult.
  • Confusion of there, they’re, and their: This is an easy mistake to make, even for editors. After all, the words sound identical. The first is an adverb, usually signifying place (There it is!) or existence (There’s an old saying). The second is a contraction, short for they are: They’re here! And the last is a possessive: It’s their idea, not mine.

10 Things You Can Do to Teach Conventions Effectively

  1. Go through your students’ papers quickly, just skimming for recurring errors. Don’t correct anything. Instead, make a list of the 10 to 20 most frequently occurring errors. Then focus on those in your instruction. It’s likely that many of the 15 common errors listed above will appear on your list, too.
  2. Resist the urge to correct students’ writing line by line. It does almost no good whatsoever, and you’ll waste valuable time you could spend hunting through literature for good examples of usage or punctuation to share with students. This doesn’t mean you should ignore errors altogether. Instead . . .
  3. Do any of the following: 1) Pull an occasional example (anonymously, of course) from a student paper and ask the class to describe and correct it. Team editing feels SO much safer and more manageable than individual editing. 2) Within individual student papers, mark no more than one or two errors at a time, thinking of this as coaching more than editing. Most students will not internalize more than one editorial correction at a time anyway, so hard as it may be, put the pen down. And 3) Work on conventions—briefly!—in one-on-one conferences. You might ask a student to edit a sentence or a short paragraph with your assistance and support (NOT watching while you do it—you already know how to edit). Base the length of the task on the student’s skill level, and don’t demand perfection. The goal is improvement, and every error spotted merits approval and applause. Instead of punishing errors, reward editing.
  4. If students plan to publish a piece formally, require editing—but allow help. Students should be able to turn to partners, small groups, resource books and the computer for assistance—along with you, of course! And they should be given time, plenty of it.
  5. To teach punctuation, try removing it from a passage. Ask students to edit the passage, filling in what’s missing. This is much more difficult than you might think—but it forces students to use their understanding of how punctuation works rather than relying on hit-and-miss memorization of rules. Give this one a try yourself (I’ll post the author’s original at the end). Notice that I have provided additional space between lines and have included NO capital letters because that makes it too easy to tell where sentences begin and end. You need to use logic—and (here’s a tip to give students), it’s easier if you read aloud:

within hours the log erupts into flames by the next morning the fire has consumed a couple of acres

of forest then dry winds spring up whipping the flames out of control firefighters can do nothing as they

watch the inferno devours hundreds then thousands of acres the fire rages for days then weeks it reduces

green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal thick smoke chokes local communities ash falls on cities and

towns a thousand miles away

6. Make sure students join you in the hunt—for errors or for good examples of conventional correctness or change. Discuss them—and sometimes post them for easy reference.

7. Share your own writing and asking for help any time you are working on a piece, no matter how short.

8. Have students routinely edit publications from your school (They’ll find more mistakes than you think).

9. Provide (and asking students to provide) real-world examples of sentences that need editorial help. Here are some I collected just in the last week—and there were many more, but I neglected to write all of them down. All of these are from adult writers and speakers, some of them newscasters or government figures:

  • Me and him haven’t agreed on a single vote.
  • That was Charlie and my’s house for five years. (If you can come up with a way to make this structure more awkward, I’d like to hear it.)
  • I’d do it this way if I was you. (But since I isn’t, I won’t.)
  • Him and myself really loved that film. (So—him loved the film. And yourself loved it, too.)
  • There was way less people at the mall than expected. (Two problems here. Can you spot both?)
  • The team played so good on Sunday!

woe is I   deluxe transitive vampire  eats shoots and leaves

Tip 10:

Have some good resource books at the ready. I particularly like Woe Is I by Patricia T. OConner, an excellent resource on current grammar—highly readable. If you’re looking for a quick guide to grammatical terminology that most definitely won’t put you to sleep, check out The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a writer who truly appreciates grammar and has a delightful time teaching it to the rest of us—her book is anything but tedious. Same goes for Lynne Truss’s now classic book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Speaking of classics . . . If you’d like a stellar book to use in teaching grammar, usage, and punctuation to students, look no further than Jeff Anderson’s brilliant Mechanically Inclined. Once you begin reading (and using) this book with your students, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

mechanically inclined

Presentation

Presentation is the partner of conventions. Basically, it’s packaging—everything from the cover (if a document has one) to the page size, use of color, graphics, inclusion of features like a table of contents or index, choice of fonts, and more.

I don’t advocate scoring or assessing presentation because it’s an element of design. People give awards—like the Caldecott—for artistic achievement, but recognition of that kind of excellence is a special form of assessment that requires a specialist’s eye and background. If you have designed publications yourself, that’s different. But it’s still important to recognize that designing documents in a classroom (or even a state-of-the-art home office) is one heck of a lot different from working at a publishing house with incredible resources at your fingertips.

I do, however, believe in teaching elements of design or presentation because when students take pride in how a document looks, that may spark additional attention to other areas, such as research, wording, or organizational structure. Further, good presentation makes documents easier to read—and readability makes readers feel good.

Word Processing Is Essential

Instruction in presentation works best, of course, if students are word processing documents. If they are hand writing their text, then presentation tends to focus on legibility. Be careful with this. Over-attention to handwriting leaves students with the unfortunate impression that presentation is mostly about neatness, and that’s like thinking that good parenting is mostly about dusting. Handwriting has nothing whatsoever to do with the logical or inventive thinking that marks strong writing. Do I think handwriting should be taught? Yes. Oh yes, I do. I am all for people writing legibly. But pretending that writing legibly is the same as thinking logically is misleading and frankly, irritating.

So let’s begin with a caveat: Everything in this section is intended for computer generated print. It presumes that the writer has control over things like font selection and size or insertion of illustrations.

Here are six very simple things you can teach to dramatically improve presentation. Every one of these can be taught through example—and best of all, you can have students find the examples themselves:

  1.  Encourage paragraphing. I am looking now at a text I like very much, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. It’s riveting—if you’re into evolution. But the very first time I opened it, I put it right back down, thinking, “Maybe later.” The text is so dense. Tiny letters fill every page. True, there are illustrations, but not enough to give tired reader’s eyes a rest. And margins are minimalized. I understand why. The book runs over 600 pages. Heck, the index alone runs 30. The editor was probably going insane trying to hold it to that length. But I’m reading it a chapter at a time so it doesn’t wear me out—and I find myself longing for white space the way some people crave chocolate. An easy way to create white space is to include more paragraphs—and even create additional space between them. Space is restful. We could use more of it. (Chocolate too. Just saying.)
  2. Help students choose fonts with care. Fonts should be readable. If students want to experiment with fonts, headings or subheadings are a good place to get fancy. Otherwise, stick with plain and simple—and make it large enough for the average person to read without magnification. On the other hand, TOO BIG isn’t good, either. Extremely large print is nearly as difficult to read as small print. The other thing to look out for is the circus effect—more than two fonts on a page. This creates a busy look that might work for a poster or greeting card, but does not create the right impression for a report, editorial, or other serious document. A good way to teach font selection is by having students peruse publications of many kinds and choose their top five fonts. (Not everyone in the class will agree on this, of course.) Then get specific about the qualities that aid readability or visual appeal. Talk about when/why it’s OK to get more creative (e.g., for a picture book cover or birth announcement). Most publications these days identify the fonts used, making this discussion fun and easy.
  3. Teach the art of listing. Lists are very hard to read in paragraph form. See Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, pages 2-3, for an eloquent example of an exception to this rule. Usually, a list is understood and absorbed much more quickly (and thoroughly) if it’s numbered (like the one you’re reading now) or bulleted. Items on a list can be expanded later. For example, a writer might quickly document three consequences of drought in a bulleted list—then go on to expand each of the three. This brings us to another easy-to-teach feature of presentation . . .
  4. Teach subheadings. They’re enormously helpful. If I could give an award for best text feature, I’d give it to the humble sub-head. It’s a form of transition—only compact and enormously revealing. This is what this section is all about, it tells us. What could be more helpful than that? It not only identifies what’s coming up, like a good road sign, but also makes it easy for us, as readers, to go back later and check something or re-read. Sub-heads are usually bold-faced or written in a larger or different font, or sometimes all three. They need to stand out.
  5. Encourage illustrations. Some. In the right spots. Again, ask students to teach themselves how this works by looking at examples. Sometimes a diagram of a shark or map of Central America is just the thing. But too many illustrations quickly turn into clutter. An illustration—by which I mean a drawing, photograph, chart, map, graph, cartoon, or any similar insertion—should be immediately and obviously helpful. It should answer a question (or questions) in the reader’s mind. If it feels more like an assignment—Here, memorize this—it’s overkill, and it’s better to omit it.
  6. Encourage appreciation of great covers. Or other artistic displays, for that matter. You might have a contest in which students nominate and vote for favorite book covers, internal illustrations, newspaper layout designs, brochure designs, posters, print advertisements, or any similar category of your choice.

Here’s the original from that punctuation activity. It’s from Sneed Collard’s wonderful new book, Fire Birds, just released (2015, p. 5). Notice how Collard’s careful use of commas makes this passage easy to read:

Within hours, the log erupts into flames. By the next morning, the fire has consumed a couple of acres of forest. Then dry winds spring up, whipping the flames out of control. Firefighters can do nothing. As they watch, the inferno devours hundreds, then thousands of acres. The fire rages for days, then weeks. It reduces green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal. Thick smoke chokes local communities. Ash falls on cities and towns a thousand miles away.

Look for a review of Fire Birds later in 2015.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

After the holiday break, I’ll review Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, along with Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills while making important links to the six traits. Until then, have a wonderful holiday.

Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . To book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Resources

For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding posts, please check out . . .

  • The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

write_traits_kit_150

Stop the Sea of Red Ink!

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Maybe sometime over the next month, you’ll find yourself coming home with a BIG stack of papers, finding a comfortable chair, whipping out your red (or purple or green) pen, and correcting the conventional errors you find. Not a pleasant task (most would agree), but essential—right? Actually, no. Not only is the correction of errors non-essential, it’s ineffective—and may actually keep your students from becoming the editors they could be. What??!! How can something so time consuming, labor intensive, and downright tedious have a negative effect? Isn’t that against the laws of the universe?

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Let’s take a closer look at what really happens when we over-correct:

1. Students feel overwhelmed. It’s too much to process. I mentioned at the close of our last post a note from a colleague who saw students pitch their corrected work into the trash as they left class. We shouldn’t be surprised. Think about it. If you invited a relative for dinner and he/she left you a note suggesting ways to improve your housekeeping and cooking, what would you do?

2. Students learn little if anything from corrections. Correcting is not teaching, despite the extreme effort it requires. A diligent student who receives only one or two suggestions regarding conventions may pay attention and incorporate new ideas into his or her editing repertoire. But this student is the exception. Most students skim over corrections, ignore them totally, or simply fail to understand what all those cryptic marks and crazy abbreviations mean. After all, if marginal notes were all it took to explain difficult concepts, think how easy calculus and physics would be!

3. Excessive focus on conventions teaches students that conventions matter more than ideas, more than a thesis or detail or proof, more than organizational structure or wording or voice. Is this the message we want to send?
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4. We (the editors) wind up exhausted. Being an editor for 30 to 180 people takes hours . . . and hours. It’s also bad for your disposition. “We just talked about this!” sounds the nagging voice in your head. And no doubt you did. But even if you talk about it every day from now until the end of time, it probably won’t make much difference because . . .

5. If you do the editing, students will never become editors. Not ever. That in itself should be enough to make you put down that red pen. In the end, which do you care about more? Perfect papers? Or strong editors? You must choose. Think of it this way. If you’ve ever had kids (well, typical kids—some really ARE neat, and no one knows why), you know that once you cave in and clean that room, that becomes your chore forever. Why? Because the child knows you will do it. You can nag, explain, cajole, plead, threaten, and bribe. But kids are resilient and smart; they know when they’re stronger than you are. They can sense when you care more about neatness per se than about turning them into neatniks. Writers (even young ones) depend on editors the same way.

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So then, if you’re not going to give up your precious weekends to make marks no one will read on papers no one will publish, what should you do? Here are 8 suggestions that really DO work:

Suggestion 1
Show that conventions matter to YOU. Wait. Isn’t this obvious? No, actually—it’s not. In case you’ve not noticed, America is not exactly having a love affair with conventional correctness. We’re only mildly interested unless a test is involved. Check out the local newscast. Look closely at the ticker on your television screen. Scrutinize your local newspaper or a current novel. I daresay you’ll spot (or hear) an error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation almost instantly. I recently downloaded a best-selling e-book onto my Kindle (I won’t repeat the title because it’s extremely well known.) I quickly became more fascinated with the number of errors in the text than with the plot (which was laughably implausible, to say the least) and found myself reading mostly for the fun of counting errors. By the time I’d finished the book, I’d counted well over 70, and would have found more had I not been skimming. Show your students that conventions matter, using a sample of your own writing—a business letter, for example. If you don’t have one underway, draft a short complimentary letter to a local business. Share it aloud with students as you project it on a screen, telling them, “I want this to be error free so it makes a good impression. Will you help me check it?” Real-world examples are always the best, and we ONLY learn when we are the editors. It’s much harder to learn when you are always the one being corrected.

Suggestion 2
Use real-world examples. Mistakes abound—so start right today collecting them and sharing them with students. Nothing develops an editor’s eye quicker than looking for mistakes in someone else’s work. Why should you have all the fun? Get your kids in on this. Here are a few I collected, mainly from newscasts but from other sources as well—they’re all mistakes made by educated adult professionals:
1. You are right we can tell the difference.

2. The use of cameras in the theater are forbidden.

3. The high school team was successfuller last night. [NO. NOT MAKING THIS UP.]

4. The outcome of events in Egypt, which will affect numerous people, are hard to predict.

5. We need to eat good.

6. No one wants this more than me.

7. Him and others in Congress are still in disagreement.

8. We are seeing less shoppers at the mall this week.

9. Being really salty, I couldn’t eat the soup.

10. Her and her sister were later interviewed by police.

Share one such “needs work” example each day—two or three if time permits. Then ask your students, “Does your current piece of writing contain this type of error? Have a look right now while it’s clear in your mind.”

Suggestion 3
Identify problems in students’ current writing. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having—subject-verb agreement, wrong pronoun, dangling modifiers, wrong word, and so forth. Here are a few I saved from various students’ work—and then shared for editing with other students (who loved revising them):

1. Being gone, I knew the music wasn’t coming from the neighbors.

2. Me and my friend Harlan were going to float the river.

3. She had short brownish blonde hair and her bangs hung over her eyes, which were a bright yellow color from when she had dyed them.

4. She lives at the resistance of Ron and Joanne.

5. I enjoy writing S. A.s.

6. “Up and Adams,” he whispered.

7. I believe in youth and Asia.

8. Space. It’s the finnel fruter. [This one helps students understand why conventions matter.]

9. She coulden’t even spell “culdn’t.” Her spelling was abyzmall.

10. I am proud to be among the on-a-roll students.

Share sentences like these on the board, letting students know you plan to do this. Ask if anyone sees a problem and if so, what should be done to fix it. (Often, there are several possible revisions, and you may want to discuss more than one.) When I did this with my own students, I never identified the writer, but I discovered early on that students actually liked having me use sentences from their writing, and it wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, “That’s from my paper!” as if it were a badge of honor to be chosen for the daily editing workout.

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: e.g., What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples:
Choose one: Events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (are, Events are . . . )
Choose one: The outcome of events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (is, The outcome is . . . )
Next, provide students with a short text containing 3 or more errors of the type you’re focusing on. Have them
1. Edit independently,
2. Check with a partner,
3. Coach you as you go through the text, identifying and correcting errors.
Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources. Keep them short: 30 words for young students, 50 or so for middle schoolers, about 100+ for high school students.
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Suggestion 5
Check out how the pro’s use conventions. One of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice, and organization: through literary examples.
Here are just a few that caught my eye. Note that before you point out what you’ve noticed, you’ll want to ask students to tell you what they notice about each example. And once you’ve shared a few, you’ll want students hunting for their own. Have them hunt with partners. You’ll be surprised by how much your students actually enjoy conventions with this activity.

• No one uses dashes with more grace than Neal Shusterman, as in this example from The Schwa Was Here (Penguin, 2004, p. 37): “His hair was kinda ashen blond—real wispy, like if you held a magnetized balloon over his head, all his hair would stand on end.” What to notice: A dash can work like a pointing finger, indicating a thought you don’t want the reader to miss.

• In Peter and the Starcatchers (a delightful, voice-filled novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), the character Tubby Ted is eager to dive into some pirate soup—until he makes a gruesome discovery and lets out a yell: “IT’S ALIVE!” (Hyperion, 2006, p. 38). What to notice: FULL CAPITALS are great for expressing anger, alarm, or fear.

• In Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine uses conventions in extraordinary ways to show how Caitlin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, responds to the world: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or greGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (Philomel, 2010, p. 44). What to notice: Creative use of italics and unexpected capitals helps us get inside Caitlin’s head.

• The humble hyphen is useful in two-part words (like that one) or for splitting multi-syllable words at the end of a line. But perhaps it has more creative uses, as in this passage from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool—in which one of the main characters, Jack, is wondering just how strange his new acquaintance Early Auden might be: “Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange?” (Delacorte, 2013, p. 28). What to notice: Hyphens can help a writer create unique adjectives that put some pretty vivid images in readers’ minds.

• Stephen Hawking opens his book A Brief History of Time with an outstanding example of how to use parentheses: “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy” (Bantam, 1996, p. 1). What to notice: I like to tell students that parentheses are like the cupped hands a person might make when whispering a secret to someone. Parenthetical comments are like that.

• In his brilliant book Oh, Rats! author Albert Marrin offers some classic examples of how to use the semicolon. Here’s one of them: “A rat is not finicky about its food; it will eat anything that will not eat it first” (Penguin, 2006, p. 13). What to notice: This sentence is made up of two small sentences (clauses) that are closely connected. They depend on each other for meaning, like people holding hands on a slippery slope depend on each other for balance. The semicolon connects sentences just as the joining of hands connects people.

• In The Good, Good Pig, author Sy Montgomery uses semicolons in a totally different way [Christopher, by the way, is a pig]: “We lined up to face the camera in ascending seniority: Christopher, age one; me, thirty-three; Liz, sixty; Lorna, ninety-three” (Random House, 2007, p. 64). What to notice: Semicolons provide a nifty way to handle a complex series in which too many commas could create confusion.

• In this passage from Hatchet (20th Anniversary Edition) by Gary Paulsen, the hero Brian (who is beyond hungry), is watching a kingfisher go after a meal. Think about how the ellipses at the very end affect you: “Of course, he thought. There were fish in the lake and they were food. And if a bird could do it . . .” (Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 108). What to notice: The ellipses give us time to enjoy the same aha moment Brian is experiencing, to fill in the blank, as it were: If a bird can do it . . . maybe I can, too.

As you and your students collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to express both meaning and voice.

Suggestion 6
Wait 3 days to edit. Almost no one (including skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what’s on the page. Allowing time after drafting creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. Then we’re prepared to edit with the same zest we’d use in reviewing someone else’s work.

Suggestion 7
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud slows us down, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud.

Suggestion 8
Keep it real. Students for whom editing does not come easily may feel very nervous about writing five pages if they anticipate having to edit every line. While I am a huge advocate of making students responsible for their own editing, I also agree that we need to find ways to make the task manageable for students who dread it. After all, we want them to write more, not less.

You can ask a struggling writer to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme care—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits meticulously can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons or demos.

Many students benefit from having a teacher mark (with a check, star, etc.) those lines in which errors appear (some teachers use a number to show how many errors a given line contains). No need to mark every line. Use your judgment in determining how much the student can handle—and think about which errors should receive priority.

A 3-minute conventions conference can be helpful, too. Focus on the one or two errors you think deserve the most attention. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find one or more similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. In addition, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (a list that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write.
And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world.

And finally . . .
Get a good handbook. No one ever masters conventions. There’s far too much to learn, and English conventions are constantly changing. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. For the basics, consider—

The Chicago Style Manual (the most respected source out there—and most complete by far)
MLA Handbook, 7th edition (some portions are also available online)
The Write Source College Handbook by Dave Kemper and Patrick Sebranek (other grade-specific handbooks are available from these authors, but I happen to prefer the college edition, even for younger students)

When a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time.
The following supplementary resources are extremely entertaining and will let your students in on the little known fact that conventions have a humorous side:
Words Fail Me and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Don’t forget to celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be. 012

Notice content and voice first. After all, what’s the point of editing if no one is listening to your message?
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Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

Discuss conventional evolution with your students. There’s nothing stagnant about English; it’s dynamic and changes hourly! Split infinitives? Commonplace! They actually precede Shakespeare (who is reported to have used a few). Dickens apparently favored sentences that began with “And” or “But” (Good news for me since I like them, too). Snuck is becoming an accepted form of sneaked (though not in all circles, admittedly). Words like dis, acquihire, creds, bling, tech-savvy, binge-watch, air punch, amazeballs, subtweet, listicle, bikeable, Paleo diet, hot mess, humblebrag, and side-eye weren’t even words (at least not in the modern sense) until recently, but they’re finding their way into Webster’s. For numerous other examples of English on the move, check out the fascinating Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner, a brilliantly researched and very funny book you will enjoy sharing (one selected passage at a time) with your students. Then talk about which conventions will last (Is the semicolon doomed? Are dashes enjoying a renaissance?), and why our amazing (or should I say amazeballs) language is ever-evolving—and expanding.

Looking for editing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:
http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

Coming up on Gurus . . .
I will be reviewing Vince Vawter’s novel Paperboy, the story of an exceptional eleven-year-old who struggles with stuttering. Jeff will share reviews of his own, together with some lessons learned through his recent experience working with fifth graders. And down the road (once it’s released), we’ll take a close-up look at Sneed Collard’s wonderful new nonfiction piece titled Firebirds. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Redwoods2
Do you teach writing? If so, you probably already know what you’re doing on that first day back in the classroom, right? But just in case, we have some suggestions.

First off, how about a little free writing? Even five minutes of writing whatever comes into your head can improve concentration and focus, create a reflective frame of mind (something all writers need), prepare students to think on a deeper level, and provide additional writing practice. Plus—and this is BIG—it can occur in any class, not just English or language arts. You do NOT need to grade or (heaven forbid) correct what students write during this time. Take it easy. Write with students—and every now and then, share a selected entry aloud. Or, invite students to share their own self-selected entries (on occasion) in small groups or with the class. Journals need to be basically private (to encourage the most honest writing), so sharing should be voluntary, fun, brief, and based on entries students feel comfortable sharing aloud. For more information on what this little five-minute activity can do for your writers, check out the following article, cited in Marshall Memo 546, August 4, 2014:

“The Obvious Benefits of In-Class Writing Assignments” by David Gooblar in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2014 (Vol. LX, #41, p. A31),
https://chroniclevitae.com/news/588-the-obvious-benefits-of-in-class-writing-assignments

That’s not our only suggestion! Here are 6 more. And by the way, you don’t have to do these things just on Day 1—you can do them any time (and more than once)!

1. Brainstorm Topics. What’s the number one question students ask any visiting writer? You’ve got it: Where do you get your ideas? The truth is (and almost every writer will tell you this), ideas come to you right out of life itself. Every experience or observation has a built-in story or topic to research—or potential argument to be made. And you don’t need to cruise the Mediterranean or complete Mission Impossible to find a writing-worthy topic. Students will see this is so if you model some writing ideas of your own. Make a list and share it with students. Three to five topics are plenty, and keep them modest so students can see how topics arise from everyday life. Here’s my list:
• Best books of the past summer
• The art of xeriscaping (growing plants with minimal water)
• Attracting owls to your yard
• Ups and downs of a low-carb diet
• Why TV is now better than the movies
• Family reunions: a good idea?
• Explosion in the local frog population
• Riding horses on the beach

I can take any one of these topics and craft a story, informational piece (with some research, of course), or argument. And this is a good thing to model, too. Take xeriscaping. Here are three different spins on this one topic:

Narrative: My experience trying to grow Russian Sage (a plant most people find easy—but I don’t!)
Informational: How to transform your yard into a xeriscape garden
Argument: Why xeriscaping is an ecological necessity in a time of depleted water resources

2. Read aloud. This past May, we lost one of Earth’s great souls—Maya Angelou. Her work accompanied me on virtually every workshop I ever did. Her words were inevitably lyrical and strikingly wise (for a collection of her most quotable moments, check out BrainyQuote). Shortly after her death, I saw a brief interview from many years ago, re-run on CBS. She spoke of a visit to a friend’s house when she (Maya) was around seven. The woman’s house was filled with books, and she took one down from the shelf to read aloud to Marguerite (as Maya was then called). It was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. As she remembered this episode during the interview, Maya imitated the dramatic, measured cadence of the woman’s voice: “It was . . . the best of times . . . It was . . . the worst of times . . .” Maya recalled her pronouncing each word with precise articulation and dramatic resonance. Even as a small child, Maya recognized the words (she was an avid reader, familiar with Dickens)—and indeed recognized the book, for she had it in her own home. But she recalled thinking, “I didn’t know it sounded like that.” Oral reading has an impact on listeners of all ages. Pick something you love and plan to share it with your students. And don’t—seriously, don’t—feel compelled to read the whole piece unless it’s short: a picture book, essay, or poem, for instance. Choose a portion you can read in limited time. I say this only because if you bite off too much, you’ll always find a reason you can’t fit oral reading into your schedule. And oh, what your students will miss. This is the best way to teach voice—but in addition, you introduce students to ideas, words, and sentence rhythms they wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Extreme Life of the Sea
My hands-down favorite new book from this past summer was The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton University Press, 2014). It’s an informational text, written with the music of fine poetry. And if I were choosing a passage to read aloud, it would be this one, from the Prologue:

It’s dark and cold and very deep. A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) cruises through the ink, descending towards the floor of the world. He’s hunting: powerful muscles and hot blood collaborating to run down rare prey in the cold, oxygen-poor depths. Down and up, dive and ascent, each cycle punctuated with foul-smelling blowhole gasps at the surface. A long life and great bulk lend the bull patience, and he passes by trivial morsels in search of more substantial fare. His broad tail and heavy muscles produce a steady cruising speed. Tiny eyes little bigger than a cow’s peer through deepening blues, oriented to look down and not ahead. In the dark, that patience bears fruit: a mile down, the world’s biggest predator meets its most fearsome prey.

That prey is, of course, the giant squid, up to 55 feet long, equipped with (we soon learn) a sharp beak and claw-like hooks on the ends of its tentacles. It will be a fearsome battle—but I’ll save that passage for next time! These are the questions I would have for students:

• What do you picture as you listen to this passage?
• What do you feel?
• Is there a word or phrase that sticks in your mind?
• Who’s going to win the battle?

Reading the passage a second time makes questions like these much easier to answer. After your discussion, challenge students to come up with a read-aloud passage of their own (from any source), to share in, say, a week. (And yes, they should come up with questions to ask you and their classmates—that’s part of the fun.)

3. Introduce revision. Revision? Isn’t that kind of . . . well, big? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be very small and manageable. Your students will gain more from small, focused revision lessons than from starting out re-doing whole essays or narratives. This lesson shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The purpose is to introduce the concept of revision through one conquerable task.

In introducing revision, I like to start with something almost every reader understands intuitively: the lead. Good leads matter. They make us read on—or put the piece down and go on to something else. You can begin this lesson in any number of ways:

• Discuss the concept of revision. What things (besides writing) do we revise? Our hair, clothes, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Remodeling a house is a form of revision. So is restructuring a curriculum. Or modifying a road trip—or re-doing a menu for the family picnic. Examples of real-world revision are endless.
• Talk about what a lead is and does. Why do leads matter? Who can recall a lead that stuck in his or her mind?
• Have students open various books (fiction and nonfiction alike) and read the leads aloud (or read leads from news stories). Comment on which ones work best and why.
• Share some of your own favorite leads. (A few of my own favorites are found in the following books: A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, In a Sunburned Country, The Catcher in the Rye, Paperboy, Counting by 7s, Matilda, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, Running for My Life, Seahorses, Seabiscuit, Animal Dialogues, The Tarantula Scientist, Birdology, The Good, Good Pig, The Teacher’s Funeral.) Choose at least five to read aloud and ask students which one is their favorite—and why. This will expand your discussion of what makes a good lead.

Next, give students a lead that needs work. Write this yourself if you don’t have an anonymous example. Think of the leads you’re tired of: the “this paper will be about” or “I will explain” kinds of leads that set up a topic in a mechanical sort of way and strike a death blow to reader curiosity. Let’s say I’m writing a report on New Zealand and I begin this way:

New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean. It lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia. It has over four million residents and most of them live in cities, though some live on farms. It has volcanoes and mountains. It also has many, many sheep.

Are you still awake? You probably cannot imagine a much more tedious lead. But maybe you cannot imagine a better one either unless you know something about New Zealand. This is the important part. Even the most imaginative writers cannot write effectively on topics they know nothing about. So give students some information to work from. Copy a page from an encyclopedia or travel brochure/book so students can do some brief on-the-spot, in-class research. The text should run no more than a half-page to a page long. That’s plenty! Then have students work in pairs (much more fun) to write a lead for a travel book, a lead strong enough to get people to sign up for a tour. The team that gets the most people (class vote) to sign up wins the contest. (Wouldn’t it be GREAT if the prize could be an actual trip to New Zealand?)

After spending just five minutes skimming through The Rough Guide to New Zealand, I revised my lead to read this way:

Imagine a country where sheep outnumber people 40 to one. In New Zealand, an island country two-thirds the size of California, sheep are so plentiful they create their own traffic jams, often stranding motorists on windy back-country roads for hours. Oddly, tourists don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they’re too busy photographing the mountains, fjords, volcanoes, and incredible black or white sand beaches. Since the filming of “Lord of the Rings,” more people are flocking to New Zealand (no pun intended) than ever before in the country’s 800-year history, and this could be the year you’re one of them.

Are you ready to sign up? Ready or not, you likely agree it’s an improvement. The question is, why? Talk with students. Then have them share their own “before and after” examples to discuss.

4. Help students think like writers. What does this mean? Several things. First, writers are readers. There is simply no way to become a writer without reading. Make a list (with students) of the things you have all read in the past month. Don’t leave anything out, however humble. It’s easy to overlook things like post cards, ads, cookbooks, on-line reviews, or signs. Don’t. List them all. Talk about how important it is to read divergently and avidly, all the time. Poetry, drama, informational essays, journalistic stories, advertisements, warnings in medicine bottles—they’re all important, and they all have lessons to teach. Writers record bits and pieces from their reading regularly: favorite words and phrases, favorite sentences, chapter titles, names, anything. Writers are collectors (another reason a journal is vital).

Second, writers are observers. They are curious about everyone, everywhere, and everything. They’re never bored. Boredom isn’t allowed in the world of writing. They take in the tiniest details: the shape of a leaf, the speed with which a caterpillar moves, the colors in a plaid shirt or muddy bog, the feel of a spider crawling up your arm, the sound of a child’s voice or an old phonograph record, the smell of a dog’s breath or newly cut grass. The smaller the detail, the more important it is. Talk about ways to record these details so they’re not lost, so you can go back to the “well” and dip in.

Finally, writers write. Every day, if possible. They don’t necessarily write pages and pages, like Freddie Einsford Hill from My Fair Lady. But they do write—an email, a post card, a note to self, a journal entry, a short description of something seen or experienced, a brief review of a book or film, a recipe to share, a single line of dialogue for a novel-of-the-future. Horace said it best in 65 B.C.: “Never a day without a line.”

5. Assess a piece of writing. Almost nothing you can do as a writing teacher will prompt better discussions or deeper understanding of writing than this simple activity. Choose a piece of writing (I usually use a student paper, but you can use anything in print) to assess as a class. If your students know the six traits, you can have them use a student friendly rubric (5-point or 6-point). Check the book Creating Writers (6th edition) or one of our Write Traits Classroom Kits (2nd edition) for copies. Both resources also contain many student papers at all grade levels that you can assess and discuss with your students. Following is a legendary paper I’ve used in countless workshops and in many classrooms as well. It invites wide ranging comments on what constitutes good writing—and what this particular piece needs to make it stronger:

The Redwoods
Last year, we went on a vacation and we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and there was lots to do, so we were never bored.

My parents visited friends and took pictures for their friends back home. My brother and I swam and also hiked in the woods. When we got tired of that, we just ate and had a wonderful time.

It was exciting and fun to be together as a family and to do things together. I love my family, and this is a time that I will remember for a long time. I hope we will go back again next year for more fun and an even better time than we had this year.

If your students know the six traits, have them score the paper on one or more traits. I think the three most important to discuss in connection with “The Redwoods” are ideas, voice, and conventions. Most students (like teachers, for that matter) see big problems with ideas (no details!) and voice (this writer is pretty disengaged)—but agree that the conventions, while not very sophisticated, are fairly strong (at least there aren’t mistakes).

Here’s a quick way to “score” this or any paper without getting too hung up on numbers. Read the paper aloud. Then go through the traits and ask whether readers see/hear more strengths or problems in each trait. With “The Redwoods,” readers typically find conventions and organization to be the strongest traits, ideas and voice the weakest. The sentences are also sound, if not musical. Word choice is clear and functional, though not particularly original or striking.

I also like to ask students if they think the writer is male or female. Most say male—but that’s wrong. I ask the grade level of the writer, and almost no one gets this right. What do you think? The most common answer by far is grade 3, though guesses range from grade 1 through grade 8. On a rare occasion, someone guesses this is an adult—and ironically, that’s pretty close! In fact, it’s actually an eleventh grade girl. She was a student in my writing class at a community college some years ago. And by the way, she was a fine writer—as later pieces showed. I also always ask students to guess what they think the assignment was. What comes to your mind? You may be thinking this was the cliché “What did you do on your summer vacation?” assignment. But, no. Even back in the day, I like to think I was more imaginative than that. I had asked students to write about an experience in which the five senses played an important part. If you’ve ever visited the Redwoods, then you know that this student chose an outstanding topic. She just didn’t take time to develop it.

Redwoods
When you score a paper with students, keep in mind that the purpose is not to come up with the “right” score. There is no such thing. There are only human responses to writing. Even Shakespeare speaks more to some people than to others. The purpose is to generate discussion that deepens everyone’s understanding of what makes writing work. Those lessons translate into stronger performance as students try new approaches in their own work.

6. Follow up on summer writing! Did you think we forgot? We didn’t! Just before the summer break, we posted a number of suggestions for keeping writing skills strong throughout the summer (see our “Thinking Like a Writer” post, published 5/28/14). They included such things as—
• Nominating favorite books, authors, passages, etc.
• Keeping a journal
• Conducting an interview
• Building your own quiz
• Trying something new in the world of writing
• Writing to an author
• Writing a letter to anyone
• Searching out 10 (or more) conventional errors
• Creating “found” poetry
• Trying photo journalism
• Writing post cards

If you or your students tried any of these things (or something you came up with), you’ll want to follow up with discussions, oral readings, bulletin board displays, podcasts, or anything invention dictates. Redwoods4

Coming up on Gurus . . .
A colleague wrote a letter recently in which he said, “I spent a whole weekend correcting students’ work, and you know what they did? They threw the papers in the trash. This is getting discouraging!” No kidding. And he’s not the only one getting discouraged. We’ve tackled this issue before—teaching conventions without wearing out the red pen. We think it’s worth revisiting as Common Core testing becomes more prevalent and the emphasis on strong editing skills compels some teachers to seek out shortcuts. Don’t panic! Instead, drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas for actually teaching conventions, not just correcting them.

Meantime, we hope you enjoyed a good summer. Thanks for coming back! Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops on teaching writing for the 21st Century, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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Informational writing is a BIG deal in the CCSS. In this post, we take a close-up look at what informational writing is, what the CCSS expectations are, and what—precisely—students must do to succeed on next year’s writing assessments.

Definition. By definition, informational writing teaches us about the world. Purists will tell you that informational writing is a little different from nonfiction, even though the latter is fact-based and true-to-life. Nonfiction may take a narrative form, though—as in some news stories, for example, or a biography. It’s also important to distinguish between informational writing and exposition, which is the free-wheeling exploration of a topic. Exposition can come right out of the writer’s head; it’s a product of imagination, philosophy, observation, and personal perspective all combined, making it ideally suited to on-demand writing. Informational writing, on the other hand, also relies on observation and experience, but the information presented must be supported by research.

Purpose. All three umbrella genres defined by the Common Core serve important instructional purposes. Narrative teaches the art of creating a setting and characters readers care about. It also offers experience in dealing with the most challenging of all organizational structures: plot. This is the organizational design writers agonize over—because it has to be good. Really, really good. No matter how strong other elements may be, if the plot is weak, implausible, or disappointing, a story falls on its face.

Argument teaches writers to examine an issue from more than one side, to take a definitive stand, and to defend that position through credible and compelling evidence. Above all, crafting an argument teaches writers to think.

Informational writing encourages writers to dig for hidden or little-known details, and present them in a way that expands others’ knowledge and understanding. This process turns writers into researchers and teachers.

Informational writing merits special attention because while a few of our students may become poets or novelists, and a few more may become attorneys, virtually all will engage in some form of informational writing: reports and summaries, articles of all types, definitions and explanations, product descriptions, newspaper journalism, photo journalism, posters, pamphlets, websites, CD-ROMs, educational materials, historic summaries, Internet features or blogs, and more. Much more. To really appreciate just how much, try keeping a comprehensive list of all the things you read in a month, big and small. Chances are—even if you’re a poetry buff or a lover of mystery novels (as I am)—the majority of reading you do focuses on information in its many forms. Teaching students to both read and write informational text is essential in preparing them for Twenty-First Century life.

CCSS Requirements
Following are the explicit requirements of the CCSS related to informational writing at grade 5. (Please check

for requirements specific to your grade level.) Notice that the first standard is complex, involving several different skills. The remaining four are more focused.

1. W.5.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

What’s required here?
Know your topic. Know precisely what your topic is and be able to express this to a reader using concise, understandable language.
Start with a killer lead. Introduce the topic clearly and directly, setting up the discussion that follows in an engaging manner that tells readers this topic is both important and interesting.
Keep it focused! Focus on your topic section to section, paragraph to paragraph. Don’t wander!
Get organized. Group related information in a logical way. Put things together that go together, and begin and end with key, relevant information. Think about putting things into a four-drawer chest. You want socks in one place, tee shirts in another—not everything jumbled together. But in addition, you need to decide what should go in the very top drawer, the very bottom drawer, and right in the middle.
Provide visual clues. Use formatting to guide the reader: e.g., subheads or bulleted lists. Everything you do should be designed to make your document EASY to read.
Enhance the message as necessary. Use illustrations or multimedia—photos, charts and graphs, maps, but also video and audio as necessary. Note: Keep in mind that writing may be a part of assessing other subjects, such as math, making visuals like diagrams or charts invaluable.

2. W.5.2.B: Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic

What’s required here?
Define the “range” of your topic. Get a sense of how “big” your topic really is. You won’t be able to tell everything, so try to identify the three, four, or five subtopics that matter most. This initial planning makes it much easier to zero in on details you want to showcase.
Choose details wisely. Don’t tell readers what they know: Elephants are big, They live in Africa and India. Dig for things readers may not know: Elephants can remember trainers and other humans for decades, Elephants can learn complex behaviors just by watching other elephants, Females elephants protect all young—not just their own.
Understand the nature of detail. Detail takes many forms: descriptions, facts, images, history, research findings and knowledge or insight from experts (via quotations). Use a variety to make your writing interesting.
Back claims with specific examples. For instance, if you say weather has changed markedly in the last ten thousand years, explain what you mean. Are deserts expanding? Temperatures rising? Are water tables drying up? What’s happening to ocean currents? Good examples should be both specific and verifiable through recent and reliable research.

3. W.5.2.C: Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

What’s required here?
Use transitions effectively. Transitions are word bridges, taking us from thought to thought, paragraph to paragraph, or chapter to chapter. Where links are less than obvious, use transitions to take your reader by the hand and guide him/her through your thinking. Don’t overdo it, though. Beginning every sentence with a transitional phrase will drive readers crazy.
Understand what transitions are. Transitions serve a purpose. They guide readers from point to point, like signage in a park or museum. The word Obviously takes readers down one path. The word Amazingly takes readers in another direction entirely. Choose transitions with care because like hand gestures or facial expressions, they influence the way readers interpret your message.
Sometimes, one word will do it: however, next, specifically
Sometimes it takes a phrase: on the other hand, to look at the problem from a different perspective, which brings us to the primary point, looking back in time, imagining the world a hundred years from now, at the end of this period in time, to everyone’s amazement
Transitions can even be whole paragraphs: We’ve seen how the Industrial Revolution changed completely and forever the way people interact with one another and with nature. But make no mistake. The next 50 years will witness changes far greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past five centuries combined. Following is a preview.

4. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

What’s required here?
Choose words carefully. The first word that comes into your head may or may not be the best for expressing a thought. In the preceding sentence, I chose to write first word that comes into your head. But what if I wrote something different? I could change the tone of that sentence by writing first word you think of or first word that occurs to you or first word that manifests itself. Take time to kick around options so you wind up saying what you mean to say—and in the tone of voice that’s right for your document.
Don’t fall victim to thesaurus syndrome. The words big, enormous, vast, spacious, expansive, and humongous are related—but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t wear a vast hat or eat a spacious sandwich. Choose the word that fits your precise intended meaning.
Use the vocabulary of the content area with ease and understanding. Every topic has a specialized language to go with it. For example, when writing about the Cosmos, a writer needs to use terms like galaxy, black hole, pulsar, gravity, super nova, relativity, or elliptical orbit with confidence and accuracy.
Explain any terms that might be unfamiliar. Most readers understand gravity, but terms like pulsar or quark could be new for some, so the occasional specialized term might need explanation.

5. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.e Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.

What’s required here?
End with a bang. The ending is your final opportunity to create an impression, so make it count. Don’t settle for banality: That’s why the Cosmos is important to us all. Yawn. Instead, create an ending that’s effective, that provides satisfaction, and that leaves the reader with something to think about: “Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. 1980, 345).
Go with the flow. Make sure the ending flows logically from information presented. A surprise is one thing—going off topic or raising new issues that seem disconnected with your primary topic is another.
Don’t repeat. Don’t repeat what you just said as if you think the reader wasn’t really paying attention. Think creatively: e.g., Reveal a detail you’ve held back for last, surprise the reader, pose a question yet to be answered, suggest something to keep in mind for the future, or wrap up with a quotation from someone with a bit of wisdom on your topic. At the end of her chapter on hawks, biologist and author Sy Montgomery closes her discussion with the “unspoken rules” by which hawks live their lives: “Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies” (Birdology, 2010, 148). No platitudes there.

What about older students?
As all fans and followers of the CCSS know well, expectations grow increasingly demanding with grade level. By grades 11 and 12, students are expected to do everything noted above, plus the following:

• Ensure that each new element (think “detail”) introduced builds on what has come before, so that the whole piece has unity and creates a conceptual scaffold that takes readers to an increasingly heightened understanding of the topic.
• Choose only the most significant and relevant facts and details to use in developing the topic.
• Incorporate such literary devices as metaphor, simile, and analogy to clarify meaning.
• Maintain a formal style and objective tone (think lively and engaging, but professional—and never biased).
• Use the conclusion as an opportunity to articulate the significance or implications of the topic.

Goals and Pitfalls
The School Improvement Network has issued rubrics developed (by a company called Tunitin) for use in scoring student writing in upcoming CCSS writing assessments. (Note: This information is NOT just for English or writing teachers. Writing may also be required in math and other assessments, where similar rubrics will likely be used.) These may change, of course, prior to testing. But they’re still worth looking up and sharing with students because they offer great insight about what raters will be looking for. Simply type “Common Core Writing Rubrics” into your search engine to find printable copies.

The so-called “Informative” rubric spans six traits: focus, development, audience, cohesion (primarily use of transitions), language and style, and conventions. (Note: If you teach the 6 traits—the original ones—these new CCSS “six” correlate to the original 6 traits as follows (CCSS term on left):

focus = ideas and presentation/formatting
audience = ideas and voice
development = organization
cohesion = organization
language and style = word choice and voice
conventions = conventions

Scores on the CCSS rubrics range from a high of 5 to a low of 1, and are defined by these headings (in order): Exceptional, Skilled, Proficient, Developing, and Inadequate.

How should you use these rubrics in the classroom?
Here are six suggestions:

1. First, print copies for your students. They will improve more rapidly and consistently if they know precisely what CCSS raters are looking for.
2. Discuss “Exceptional” (Level 5) descriptors. This is the CCSS ideal—for now at least. So this is your goal. Discuss these with students to see if anything is unclear—and also how close they feel they come to meeting each of these high level goals in their own writing. Think also of the literature you share as a class. Which professional writers meet the top goals? Their work can serve as a model.
3. Score some papers as a class. Almost nothing you do will enhance your students’ understanding of good writing more than this simple lesson—and students of all ages enjoy it immensely. Use anonymous copies of student work (from other classes, if possible). But also score a few professionally written essays (and don’t assume they’ll all get 5s, either). As you score, begin with Level 5. Does the piece you are assessing meet the requirements outlined there? If not, drop down point by point until you find the level that fits best. Don’t be surprised if your students do not all agree on the most appropriate scores. Excellent discussions emerge from these disagreements.
4. Ask students to score essays of their own. If they do not meet the Level 5 requirements according to their own assessment, ask them to work out a revision plan—and to follow it in revising their own work. They cannot always go from 1 to 5, but even a one-point revision shows progress.
5. Be cautious about that term “inadequate.” Negative terms can hurt—and actually impede progress. Think of Level 1 as a “beginning.” The writer has put something on paper.
6. Pay particular attention to problems identified at Levels 1 and 2. Any of them could result in lower scores. Following is a brief summary of the major pitfalls in informational writing:

Pitfalls for Informational Writing
• The topic is unclear—or the writer doesn’t really have a topic yet
• Information is limited
• There are few if any facts or examples to explain or expand the topic
• The conclusion is missing or weak
• The writer does not seem “in tune” with the informational needs and interests of the audience
• Graphics and formatting (e.g., subheads, bulleted lists, illustrations) are missing, confusing, or simply not helpful
• The writer uses few if any transitions—and does not link ideas to one another or to the main topic
• Word choice is vague
• Words are used incorrectly
• The writer makes limited (if any) use of metaphor or simile to clarify ideas
• The tone is not appropriately objective and professional
• The text contains multiple conventional errors (according to handbooks published by the MLA, Modern Language Association, or APA, American Psychological Association)

“Must Have” Skills Students Need to Succeed
Research: Students must be capable of identifying sources of information, setting up a research plan, and following it to gather data.

Note taking: Just finding a good source is not enough, whether it’s a book or person to interview. It’s important to zero in on what’s important, ask the right questions (whether of an interviewee or just in your own mind), and take good notes that will later translate into riveting text. This means capturing what matters and not overloading yourself with trivia.

Organizing information: Many students find piles of data daunting. They don’t know what to write about first, next, or last. Just telling students to “get organized” is of no help. You need to walk them through it step by step. Try this: Create a list of informational tidbits (about 20 or so) on any topic at all, then model the organization of that information. Begin by crossing out what you don’t need: e.g., what’s less interesting, what most readers likely know. Then group remaining tidbits under two, three, or four subheadings. Next, organize the information within each of those subhead categories. Write a strong lead and ending for your piece. Come up with a title for the piece. Once you’ve done this, give students a second set of informational bits on a whole new topic, and have them go through the same steps you just modeled—perhaps working with a partner.

Using transitions: Identify transitions in the reading you do together and discuss how they work. Share lists of transitions, but don’t depend on lists. That’s like teaching math by giving students a list of numbers. Instead, have them search for passages in books, newspapers, or Internet articles where transitions are used well—and talk about why. Talk about what happens in your mind as a reader when you encounter transitions like Suddenly, Just then, Worst of all, Luckily, Just out of sight, and so on. In the CCSS assessment, the trait of “Cohesion” is largely defined by the effective use of transitions—so using them skillfully is vital. (See our December 9, 2013 post on the CCSS Writing Assessment for tips on teaching effective use of transitions.)

Writing strong conclusions: Students often rely on formula, repeating their three main points. That isn’t going to be good enough. Just reading the words “In summary” could be enough to make a reader think, “Cliché, formula, score of 3 or lower.” Writers will need to be creative. Study endings from the best informational books and articles you can find. What are the alternatives to formula and predictable re-hashes of points already made? Create a class list of strategies that work—and practice writing model conclusions.

Editing and citing sources: Conventions will need to be top-notch. This means students must spell, capitalize, and punctuate correctly, use proper grammar, and know how to cite sources—books, periodicals, interviewees, or whatever. Practice in editing is essential—and any practice of less than ten minutes is probably going to be only minimally helpful. Note that the CCSS requirements for conventions rely on MLA or ALA handbooks, so it is a good idea to have one of these in your classroom and teach students to use it as a resource. Look something up every day and know the guidelines for citing sources. (Note: Check Amazon for a series of affordable pamphlets that combine MLA and APA Guidelines in a compressed format. Author: Thomas Smith Page/Inc. BarCharts.)

Update on Machine Scoring
Discussion continues about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in scoring writing assessment samples. As you know if you’re a regular reader, at Gurus we object adamantly to machine scoring—for a host of reasons (See our post from 11/7/2013 for an extensive review of this issue). The primary advantage with AI, of course, is speed. Quick (think “scan and done”) scoring radically reduces cost, and unfortunately, cost reduction is an almost unparalleled motivator. It’s important to keep this possibility in mind when preparing your young writers for upcoming assessments because machines are not very good at nuance. As an example, they’re very good at identifying advanced vocabulary, but not quite as good at determining whether those big words are used well. Further, no one can seem to figure out how to program them to score “voice.” (What?! Machines cannot detect when something touches the human heart?) Similarly, they have laser-like accuracy when it comes to spotting conventional errors, but no sense of humor whatsoever regarding conventional creativity. (Imagine e. e. cummings in a writing assessment.) For more on this ongoing debate, see “Automating Writing Evaluations” by Caralee Adams in Education Week “Technology Counts,” Mar. 13, 2014 (Vol. 33, #25, p. 13, 15), http://www.edweek.org

Recommended Mentor Texts
Use of mentor texts is invaluable in teaching informational writing—and luckily, there are many more to choose from than were available even a decade ago. You don’t have to rely just on books; many periodicals—Scientific American, National Geographic—feature Pulitzer Prize-worthy writing by some of the best authors around. Read aloud to students (of all ages) frequently from the best informational writing you can find, and use selected pieces as mentor texts to illustrate things like—

• Strong leads
• Effective conclusions
• Good use of detail
• Artful use of transitions
• Appropriate tone and style
• Striking word choice

Between the two of us, Jeff and I could easily list 100 or more outstanding informational books. The following is a more manageable list of particular favorites. We’ve noted general reading levels, but please keep in mind that you can read small passages from any book (including those aimed primarily at adults) to even the youngest students. You might read the whole book, but you can be selective in choosing passages to share.

The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife—word choice so striking you’ll read some passages several times.
Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) We may not love them, but we sure love hearing about them. Simon has all the gory details.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Wonderfully detailed history of how homes and their amenities, from phones to windows to bathtubs, evolved.
Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Beautifully researched, dramatic stories of courageous people who formed a network of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—striking layout featuring artwork, numerous photos, and maps.
Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science by Bill Nye (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Clear and simple explanations of various aspects of physics.
Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Informational, adult) Details and word choice so captivating, this one is hard to put down—many, many excellent read-aloud passages.
Black Gold by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Concise review of oil’s history, and its impact on world economics and politics—good for illustrating the value of research.
The Brain by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Good model of clear science writing.
Buried in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Fascinating blend of U.S. history and forensic science, filled with revealing photos (some graphic).
The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (Informational, adult) Everything you ever wanted to know about cockroaches, and then some.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Informational, Grade 9 and up) Sure, a lot has happened since Sagan wrote this landmark book, but his gift for rendering astro-physics poetic remains unmatched.
The Deep Sea Floor by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) One of the best leads you’ll find in a science text. Also excellent for modeling good use of terminology.
Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Detailed, often hilarious accounts of how our hardiest creatures survive extreme conditions.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Combines multiple genres: informational, descriptive, personal narrative, travel writing, history in a seamless fashion—makes you want to visit Australia immediately. You can choose from among hundreds of fine informational passages for read-alouds your students will love.
Just the Right Size by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) A simple math concept turns into a delightful chapter-by-chapter essay on how animals evolve into just the right size—excellent example of Informational voice.
Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Illustrated with the author’s own photos—check out the table of contents to see how well organized this one is.
Next Stop Neptune: Experiencing the Solar System by Alvin Jenkins (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Photos, art, and text work together to relay intriguing details.
Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 4 and up) How could an author who feared rats as a child write a book this intriguing? Grade 1 through adult, listeners can’t get enough.
Our Planet by the MySpace Community (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Well-researched book on going green, with many sections useful in modeling argument.
Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Easy reading, highly engaging—filled with choice details about unusual animals.
Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam (Informational, Grade 4 and up) No matter where you are, there’s a spider close by. That’s just one of dozens of spidery facts Margery Facklam taught me in this book.
Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (Informational, graphic sections, Grade 10 and up) The stunning story of how sugar drove the Atlantic slave trade—filled with voice and striking word choice.
The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Clear, detailed writing with photos vivid enough to make you jump.
Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns (Informational, Grade 6 and up) You won’t believe how much plastic floats in our seas.
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman (Informational & poetry, Grade 5 and up) A terrific book for showing how to deal with a given topic in more than one genre. Informational essays and correlating poems pay homage to nature’s toughest species.
What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Highly readable account of
parasites—detailed (almost too detailed in parts!), with excellent use of terminology.
Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife and conservation—Quammen is an informational writing master.
World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Essentially a 171-page argument for rethinking our fishing practices—exceptionally well-written and useful for illustrating most writing standards of the Common Core
Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 6 and up) A well- researched account of factors leading up to the Dust Bowl, life during this period, and projections for future Dust Bowls planet-wide; excellent for showing how a professional writer can deal with a vast array of information and display it in multiple forms: facts, essays, songs, maps, photos, and more.

Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:
http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/literature-and-language-arts/language-arts/write-traits

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Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next time around, Jeff returns with reviews of some outstanding new books. He’ll have many classroom teaching tips you won’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about meeting Common Core standards in informational writing—or any genre—we can help. We’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We know the standards inside and out, and we can help you connect them with writing process and workshop—as well as outstanding mentor texts for all ages. Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Woodward-VickiJeff3249a

Introduction

Argument just might be the most difficult of the three umbrella genres to master—and it’s the one that receives the most emphasis in the Common Core standards for writing. Why is this? The Common Core authors contend that a university is an “argument culture,” meaning that university bound students will need to be skilled in this form of writing because during their college experience, they will use it more than any other. Further, the CCSS writers suggest, only about 20% of our students—at any grade level—are prepared to write a solid argument. It is not emphasized in most writing curriculums, which tend to focus on exposition and narrative, nor do many students fully understand the nature of argument. In addition, while some students have experience writing persuasive essays, very few develop the skills essential to a good argument. But—is there really a difference between the two?

Yes. According to the Common Core State Standards, persuasive writing and argument are related, but not quite the same thing. Persuasive writing can be heavily opinion-based, and tends to rely on the credibility of the writer (Betty Crocker knows her cakes, Stephen Hawking knows about the universe) or on an emotional appeal to the readers (If we care about the earth, we’ll conserve water). Argument, on the other hand, stands on its own, atop a platform of solid facts and evidence. Few of our readers are probably old enough to recall the iconic TV cop Joe Friday, who famously said (repeatedly), “Just the facts, ma’am.” In other words, give me the cold, hard evidence, without any emotion or personal bias mixed in. Let’s consider the big differentiating factor here—evidence—and then explore things we can do to teach this challenging genre effectively.

 

The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

What qualifies as evidence? It’s more than a hunch, more than an opinion, more even than a reason (I like dogs because they’re playful). It’s facts, solid, recordable information, what’s learned over time or through multiple experiences or through direct observation. To make the distinction simple, evidence is anything about which you can ask, What’s your source? And the answer can be cited.

Let’s say I’m making an argument that snorkelers and swimmers are damaging coral reefs. I don’t happen to be a marine biologist, so I cannot rely on personal credibility. If I love coral reefs—which I do, in fact—I can offer a passionate plea to stop harming one of the great treasures of our earth. Coral reefs are beautiful, I claim. Many marine creatures live on the reefs. This might be a good beginning, but so far I still haven’t offered much in the way of solid evidence. I haven’t gone beyond the level of persuasion or opinion piece. Here are some things I could do to elevate my writing to an argument:

  • Talk with a marine biologist
  • Read about coral reefs and how they are eroding
  • Talk with a chemist about the impact of sunscreen on reefs
  • Visit a coral reef in person and take some underwater photographs to contrast fading colors with how reefs looked twenty years ago
  • Gather data on the number of swimmers who visit popular reefs each year
  • Gather data on the current health of reefs worldwide.

In short, evidence—central to any successful argument—consists of any of the following:

  • Scientific data
  • Facts
  • Documented history
  • First-hand observations/experience
  • Information taken from reliable sources (books, Internet, or other media—such as film)
  • Information from interviews with experts

Does the topic matter?

YES!! Many issues remain, in the end, largely a matter of opinion, no matter how much information we might gather on the topic: e.g., Which makes a better pet—a cat or dog? When we set students up with this kind of an issue, one on which it’s a challenge to gather hard-core evidence, we teach them to be persuasive without demanding the fundamentals of good argument. We teach them to rely on personal opinion rather than research. This isn’t easy to reverse. We need to teach students the difference between opinion and evidence and, where appropriate, assist them in choosing a good topic—and developing a claim that can be supported by evidence.

What makes a good topic? It’s something about which the writer is curious, an issue about which people do choose sides, one that permits development of a defensible claim, and one for which evidence is reasonably available through research (reading or other investigation, interviews, site visits, etc.). Let’s say my topic is elephants. An indefensible (through evidence) claim is that elephants are the most interesting of all mammals. I might think so, but I can’t really show it to be true. A better claim, one I can support through evidence, is that female elephants make incredibly good parents. Now the question becomes, How do I support this claim? I’d like to travel to Africa and film elephants in their native habitat for a month or two, but sorry to say, that’s out of the question. Here are some research approaches more within the realm of possibility: visit a local zoo and observe elephants with their young, take notes, take photos, or even shoot a video; interview biologists, caregivers or veterinarians about the behavior of elephants with their young; carefully choose books and articles to read; view online (or other) films about elephants. In the end, the more credible my sources and the more compelling the evidence I gain from them, the more convincing my argument will be.

You may be thinking that argument demands a greatly expanded definition of writing. That’s correct—and it’s correct because it relies on research. Information to support an argument cannot generally be pulled out of the writer’s head. It has to be sought out. This means identifying good sources, tracking them down, taking meticulous notes, summarizing the best information in a way that makes sense, ordering that information logically, and citing sources thoroughly and correctly. That is a lot to learn—and a lot to teach. And there can be a twist, too—one for which we don’t usually prepare students: As a researcher, I must be open to the idea that my original premise is wrong. If I discover, in the course of my research, that elephants are not good parents after all, then the whole structure of my argument must change. Argument writing, in the end, is not a quest to validate the writer’s original thinking; it’s a search for the truth.

Doesn’t passion have a role to play in argument?

Some CCSS people would probably say no. But I disagree. Writers who feel passionate about a topic are likely to be more convincing. That doesn’t mean they can forego evidence, though. This is easier to understand if we put it into a courtroom context–a place where good argument is vital.

Let’s say I’m defending a person who’s accused of a shooting an intruder. I can say he was a nice person, that he would never do such a thing. Everyone liked him. The neighbors say he “seemed like such a regular guy.”

Such claims may well be convincing, but if the prosecution has hard evidence, a passionate plea appealing to emotion may not be enough. Let’s say that the prosecution can show that the intruder was someone the defendant knew, and they had a long history of discord. Maybe the defendant bought a gun a week before the shooting, though he’d never owned one before. In the face of strong counter arguments, I need more than opinion or passion. I need evidence.

Evidence in this case might include things like the following: Footprints show that the intruder came to a back window, not the front door as one might expect; and the intruder was wearing a mask—so it’s reasonable to assume he was trying to hide his identity. This evidence is the core of my case. I can also argue passionately that the defendant was a kindly person, who had no history of violence. That’s a compelling defense that will likely strengthen my argument—but it will not take the place of evidence.

The thing to remember is that in a CCSS assessment, readers will look for solid evidence. Writers need to ask themselves, “Did I prove my case?” Passion won’t hurt—so long as it does not camouflage, replace, or minimize evidence.

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

Up through grade 5, the CCSS call for students to write opinion pieces, not arguments per se. The defining characteristics of an opinion piece are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim
  • The writer offers reasons to support that claim (School uniforms are not a good idea because they are expensive)
  • The writer offers facts or details to strengthen his/her reasons (School uniforms can cost over $100 each, and every student needs at least two of them)
  • The writer uses transitions (For example, To illustrate, Consequently, On the other hand, In addition) to link reasons or details to the main claim
  • The writer sets up the paper by making the issue clear and closes by reinforcing his/her position or otherwise guiding the reader toward a good decision

Beginning in grade 6, students are expected to write more formal arguments—and personal opinion plays a much smaller role, if indeed it is present at all. Reasons generally yield to evidence (as noted earlier), and such evidence is expected to be substantive, convincing, and grounded in research. The essentials of an argument are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim and sticks with it throughout the argument
  • The writer offers support for that claim in the form of evidence
  • The writer organizes information in a logical manner (The argument makes sense and is easy to follow)
  • The writer uses “words that clarify relationships” among claims and reasons: e.g., As the following example illustrates, To make this point even more clear, For this reason, In conclusion, To look at it another way, In addition, On the contrary
  • The writer relies on research and cites credible sources to back his/her claims
  • The writer adopts and maintains a formal (think academic) style throughout the piece

 A word of caution: It’s easy to see that in transitioning from grade 5 to grade 6, some students (indeed, some teachers) may find themselves confused. First opinion matters deeply. Then it disappears behind the scenes, replaced by evidence. The CCSS writers contend that the opinion pieces students write K-5 lay the groundwork for the more formal argument pieces that will follow in middle school on up. There’s a problem with this, however. “Groundwork” suggests that students build on what they have learned. In fact, they’re asked to leap onto a whole new ladder. It is true that opinion pieces do teach students to state a claim and to back it with reasons. So one could argue that this is an organizational framework that will serve them well in the future. That’s fine so far as it goes. Confusion occurs because the substance of the argument changes. Beginning in grade 6, evidence and research take center stage, and students may be relatively unprepared for this sudden shift. Instead of pulling opinions from their own minds, they must now investigate outside sources and assemble evidence. This isn’t convincing mom and dad to buy a puppy. It’s showing evidence that pets improve the quality of life. That’s a pretty big leap.

Here’s my suggestion: Teach opinion pieces in the early grades (as the CCSS suggest), but help students make the transition by showing, early on, the difference between opinion (or reasons) and true evidence. We do not need to demand evidence in their writing at this stage, but I think we do need to show them what evidence is, and indicate that beginning in middle school, they will be doing more independent research. It is never too early to teach research and the documentation of that research. Too many college students flounder because they have no idea how to track down information, incorporate it into their writing, or cite the sources from which they took it. Even with primary students, it is possible to model the borrowing of a fact, and show how that fact strengthens personal writing.

Let’s say I’m writing about throwing trash away on the beach. My claim is that this is a bad idea, and one of my reasons is that trash could be harmful to marine animals. Even kindergarteners, many of them, will agree with this. But if I wanted to show them how to make my argument stronger, I could read a very short passage from a book called Tracking Trash by Loree Griffith Burns (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I might tell them, “I want to make my argument even more convincing by including a fact. This is called using evidence. Tell me if you think I should put any of this evidence in my paper about trash.” I will then read (or paraphrase) some short, pre-chosen excerpts from pages 38-39 of Burns’ book: e.g.,

  • “There is no organism anywhere on the planet that can digest plastic.” (p. 38)
  • The number of animals in the Pacific Ocean that die each year from eating plastic is about 100,000. (p. 39)
  • If we could “turn off a plastic switch” somehow, bits of bottles, hats, soccer balls, sneakers, and tub toys would keep washing up on shore for 30 or 40 years. (p. 39)

I have no doubt that even very young writers will find this information interesting. I have no doubt that they will see how any or all of these research findings would strengthen my writing. But best of all, even if they don’t begin doing this themselves for five more years, they will begin to grasp the difference between opinion and evidence. They will begin to see the value of evidence. It’s not just some arbitrary CCSS requirement. It’s a tool for making writing powerful, a tool for changing human behavior.

 

What is “logical” order anyway?

The CCSS call for logical order in argument, but do not define what that looks like. In all fairness, logical order is not an easy concept to get your arms around, but we need to help students understand what it does—and does not—look like. In the simplest terms, it’s constructing an argument the reader can follow. The best tests for this are to (1) read your own writing aloud to yourself—more than once; and (2) share your writing with a partner, who can point out any moment where he or she feels lost.

Logical order should also include these elements:

  • A strong lead. A good lead in an argument lays out the issue at hand and makes the writer’s central claim clear.
  • Orderly presentation of key evidence. Let’s go back to my topic of eliminating trash on the beach. Suppose I have evidence that the increased volume of plastic trash in the ocean kills marine life, disrupts the food chain in the ocean, and reduces the supply of consumable fish. I need to decide in what order to present these—and I would choose the order in which I’ve listed them. Why? Because killing marine life is the most obvious consequence, disrupting the food chain is something readers might not think of immediately, so I can rekindle interest with that point, and finally, interfering with fishing hits home. It’s my strongest point because it affects people personally—so I save it for last. (This is one part of organizational structure I always sketch out on scratch paper.)
  • Counterarguments and rebuttals. Counterarguments are often best handled after the writer has presented the majority of his or her evidence. There is little point in weighing in against arguments that have yet to be made. Counterarguments on the topic of plastic waste might include things like (1) it’s too expensive to deal with it, (2) marine animals are highly adaptable and will accommodate to this new situation, and (3) the problem is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the media. A whole section of my essay must include open and honest discussion of each of these issues and my rebuttals.
  • Transitional phrasing. Transitions are essential in any form of writing, not just argument. But it’s also fair to say that transitions play a special role in this genre because they guide readers’ thinking. Consider how your brain responds to each of the following: To be more specific, Though it isn’t obvious at first, To look at the issue another way, Although this seems like a sensible argument, Furthermore, In addition, Most compelling of all . . . Each one of these sets us up, as readers, to make more of what follows. Mastering transitions is an exercise in higher thinking, so don’t expect miracles in just weeks. But continue providing examples from the best writing you can find, and discuss them. How does each transition affect thinking?
  • A powerhouse ending. Endings matter. They need to stick in our minds, wrap up loose ends, give us new things to think about—and perhaps, in the case of argument, suggest new thinking or action. An ending must be more than a summary of what we’ve read. It is condescending to simply summarize what’s been said, as if the reader were inattentive or not very quick. It’s lazy to leave things dangling, or toss the choice of options to the reader—the old “What do you think?” way out. A good argument might close with a call to action, a summary of the consequences of inaction, or even with the most powerful piece of evidence—one the writer has held back until this moment. A good question to ask is, What doesn’t the reader know yet that will push him/her to a good conclusion?

 

3 Additional Tips

Not everything can be incorporated into standards. Following are three tips for strong argument writing that you may or may not infer from reading through the standards:

  1. Know your topic. Nothing, nothing whatsoever, takes the place of this. It’s impossible to measure how well a writer knows a topic—but it’s easy to gain an impression. Writers who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about quickly lose the attention of a reader. If you think professional assessors never skip right from first paragraph to last, think again. It happens frequently, especially when people are pressured to read quickly, and they think they already know what the writer is (or isn’t) going to tell them. Well-informed writers can wake readers up. They are able to choose details that matter, details that are both interesting and important to the argument at hand. They also anticipate what the other side is thinking and that makes counter arguments easier to refute with skill.
  2. Write with voice. You won’t, of course, find this bit of advice in the CCSS. They’ve tried their best to make voice a non-issue. The problem with that is that readers are incapable of ignoring voice. It’s like ignoring air. Gotta have it or everything else becomes irrelevant. The CCSS calls for students (grades 6 and up) to “adopt a formal style.” The reason for this is obvious. You don’t want to appear at the Oscars in your tee shirt. Formality commands a certain respect. It makes the writer appear serious. But let’s step back and assess what “formal style” really means. Does it mean to write in a cold, detached manner? To appear uninterested in one’s own topic? I don’t think so. I think it means to write with voice—but a certain kind of voice. Not playful, not humorous, not jokey or sarcastic, lofty or arrogant. Not a voice that shines the spotlight on the writer instead of on the topic. But rather, a voice that is confident, knowledgeable, thoughtful, curious, intrigued, impressed by and respectful of the results of one’s own research. And above all—helpful. A voice that reaches out to the reader with this message: This information is fascinating, and I want to share it with you as clearly as I can. Please tune in.
  3. Take a stand and stick with it. Many students are cautious about offending anyone. So they conclude their persuasive writing with comments like this: Dogs or cats? I like them both! Which would you choose? They need to know that as conclusions go, this is pretty weak. Some readers find it downright annoying. Our message to writers needs to be “Be bold. Dare to take a stand, even if some readers disagree. They will still respect your position if your reasons and evidence are strong.” Then, an ending can go more like this: “Cats may live twice as long as most dogs, but the joy you’ll know spending time with your dog makes up for it!” OR—“It’s true that you cannot train most cats to fetch sticks or do other tricks, but cat owners actually prefer untrained pets who behave more as animals do in the wild.”

 

What to Teach: 6 Essentials

Here’s a quick summary of six things we must teach in conjunction with argument:

  1. The nature of argument itself. Students have difficulty (As we all do, to some extent) distinguishing between argument and opinion or emotion-based persuasion, so help them make this distinction, keeping in mind that arguments rely on evidence.
  2. The nature of evidence. It isn’t easy to go from “Here’s what I think and why” to “Here’s what I think based on the evidence I’ve collected.” Understanding the forms evidence can take is an important first step.
  3. Research fundamentals. Research is fun. Raise your hand if you agree. Actually—I’m not kidding. Research can be fun, if you know how to go about it. I mentioned things like snorkeling on the coral reef or visiting the zoo. Such things don’t always come to mind when students think of research. They imagine long hours poring over the Internet, taking tedious notes. But site visits, personal experience, films, and interviews can and should be part of research, too. In addition, we can alleviate some of students’ research phobia by giving them instruction on simple things like figuring out where to look for information in the first place, making a research plan (complete with timeline), navigating the Internet, arranging an interview, or taking good notes. Many, many, many students struggle with note taking, and this makes research a nightmare.
  4. Evaluating the validity of a source. Not all books or Internet sites contain valid, reliable information. Knowing how to assess the value of a source is important, and needs to be taught through modeling and discussion.
  5. Quoting effectively. Ever notice how many quotations look like they were dropped into the text from a hovering helicopter? Students need to know how to find a good, relevant quotation; how much to quote (whole paragraphs are too much, single words not enough); and above all, how to set up a quotation so that it feels like an integral part of the argument instead of a pine cone falling on your head. You can use mentor text for good illustrations and model the use of introductory set-up lines such as these: As Jeff Hicks often says . . . Donald Murray makes this clear with the following message . . . As Loree Griffith Burns points out . . . Consider this comment from Anne Lamott . . .
  6. Writing clearly. Fuzzy arguments fail. Readers need to know where the writer stands and why. If the reader cannot summarize the argument, including evidence, counter arguments, and rebuttals, it’s not clear enough. Once students finish drafts, pair them up and have partners try summarizing each other’s arguments. This is an excellent way for writers to detect loopholes and plan ways to revise.

 

Some final thoughts

Argument is not a mental wrestling match, an effort to “win” or come out with more points. It’s an attempt to educate readers so that together you arrive at the most logical or helpful conclusions. Argument is important in any field—education, medicine, scientific research, technology—where the consequences of poor decisions could be dire. To teach argument is to teach thinking.

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next week, Jeff will offer reviews of some of his favorite new literature, discovered over the holiday break. I (Vicki) will return in about two weeks to review Holly Goldberg Sloan’s compelling story of friendship, family, and outsiders, Counting by 7s. Meantime, are you thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.