Category: Instructional Tips


strange-fruit-by-gary-golioStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio. 2017. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Genre: Biographic picture book, social commentary, history

Levels: Grade 8 and up

Features: Passionate artwork that beautifully complements the subject; helpful background information on the Café Society, the origin of “Strange Fruit,” and the brutal practice of lynching; fascinating short bio of jazz icon Billie Holiday; excellent source list.

 

Overview

A song about lynching? The very concept is nearly as shocking today, even in our violence-inured society, as it must have been when Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The story of how that performance came about makes for a bold, brave book that handles a difficult subject with extraordinary grace, neither flinching nor dramatizing, but simply allowing history to speak for itself. And oh my, does it ever.

Throughout the book, author Gary Golio maintains a strong, direct voice that propels us through the text. He lets us know, on every page, that Billie Holiday was no ordinary woman. Without doubt, she was a singer of rare talent, but that was only the beginning. A fire burned in Billie, making her a force for justice: “Billie wasn’t going to scrub floors like her mother. She had a plan to be somebody.”

As her story reveals, Billie’s life was a gauntlet of misfortunes and challenges. She faced desertion by her father, a traumatic assault, even time spent in jail at the impossibly young age of 14. Perhaps life’s experiences helped her gain the courage and grit needed to succeed in an entertainment world still dominated by white performers. Gifted and determined, Billie grew to be one of the greatest singers of all time, revered by musicians of every background. And she retains that status today.

Billie Holiday’s soulful voice and interpretive genius made her the perfect choice to perform “Strange Fruit.” And Golio makes it clear that Billie was singled out for this role. The song was written by a Jewish high school teacher and song writer, Abel Meeropol, who personally performed it for Holiday. While the song may have been a gift to Billie, it was a gift that came with strings. She sang it for audiences who understandably cringed at its unapologetic lyrics. Most fell silent. Some walked out. That first performance took a raw courage few singers could have summoned. Yet through sheer will and talent, Billie drove this unlikely song to fame. It was a triumph for her, and for the black community.

Golio’s book is tight and concise—like a spring-loaded poem. Every word carries weight. I read it several times (It’s not the kind of book you can read once), and each time the emotional impact was profound. The events triggering the writing of this song are stark, provocative, and immeasurably sad. But the book’s overall message is one of inspiration. Who would think one song, or one singer, could make such a difference in the American landscape? Yet the reverberations are felt to this day.

In the end, Strange Fruit is not only a rich biographical slice of Billie Holiday’s life, but also an homage to courage. The courage of entrepreneur Barney Josephson, who created a space for black entertainers to perform—and people of all ethnicities to hear them. The courage of Abel Meeropol who wrote a song to wake complacent Americans up. And above all, the courage of a legendary singer who risked everything—her career, her freedom, her very life—to make people face the truth. Golio’s beautiful and haunting book, like the song it’s named for, is a bravura performance.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Strange Fruit is a daring  book on a controversial topic. Listeners and readers must be prepared to discuss highly sensitive topics with empathy and openness. With that in mind, read the book on your own first, more than once. Then decide if you feel it is most appropriate for a small-group discussion or for sharing with the whole class. Clearly, this is a book that cries out for discussion and response. Encourage students to write and talk about the important and timely issues the book raises, making sure to give them the background needed to do so with understanding and perspective.

Background. In two parts . . .

Part 1: Billie Holiday . . . Just who was Billie Holiday? The bio at the end of the book, accented by a striking photo of “Lady Day” wearing her signature gardenias, is a good place to begin. Before sharing it, though, ask how many of your students have heard of Billie Holiday or heard her sing? Her fan base is so expansive even now that many parents or grandparents may have recordings they would be willing to share with your class. You can also find numerous online recordings of Billie’s most popular songs, including “It Had to Be You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “God Bless the Child,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Porgy,” “Body and Soul,” and dozens more. Listen to a few selections together, and ask students what words they would use to describe Holiday’s voice and style. Even the most successful musicians, including people like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, viewed Billie Holiday as unique in her talent. Why do your students think that might be?

Part 2: Civil rights . . . The story of “Strange Fruit” will take on new meaning for students acquainted with black history, the origins of jazz, and race relations during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. To set the stage (and prior to sharing the book), you might ask individual students, or teams of two, to do some preliminary research on any one of the following topics (or others you consider significant), and to share their findings with the class:

  • Race relations in America during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Protest songs in American history
  • Jim Crow laws and their impact on black Americans
  • The Great Migration
  • The Ku Klux Klan
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
  • The origin of Black History Month
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture American jazz
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Lynching*

*The practice of lynching has been outlawed in the U.S., but as author Gary Golio notes in “What Happened Next,” it took an unbelievable amount of time for this to happen—until 2005.

The online history of lynching is both horrifying and graphic, so you must decide how deeply you want to engage students in this topic. Author Gary Golio’s short epilogue, “What Happened Next” (in the book’s back matter) provides an excellent and concise summary of lynching’s dark history and the impact of “Strange Fruit” on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. For many classrooms, this summary will be sufficient. For mature readers who wish to go further, it may be enlightening to look up the image that inspired “Strange Fruit.” It’s a photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, immediately following their violent execution. It was this photo that purportedly pushed writer/teacher Abel Meeropol to take such a strong and public stand against the inhumane practice of lynching.

The poetry behind the song. “Strange Fruit” was originally written as a poem, and before listening to Holiday sing it (and this is a must), it can be helpful to discuss it as poetry. As you’ll see, the lyrics are printed in a large font toward the end of the book. Read it aloud while showing it on a document projector, and then give students a chance to discuss it with partners or in small groups before opening a general discussion. Here are a few questions for them to think about—and please add your own to this list:

  • What is your initial response to these lyrics?
  • What is the overall mood of this poem?
  • What does the word “pastoral” mean?
  • Why does the writer use the word “gallant” in the expression “gallant South”?
  • How does the writer want us to feel?
  • What is the significance of the word “fruit” in this context?

After discussing the lyrics, listen to Billie Holiday’s rendition. Author Gary Golio talks about Billie’s “expressive” face when she sang this song for the first time. He says she looked “tortured” and her voice sounded like “a cry of pain.” Though we cannot, unfortunately, witness that initial performance, do you and your students hear and see some of this stress in the online version? After listening to her performance, Share Abel Meeropol’s quotation about Billie Holiday that appears with her photo at the end of the book. Did he choose the right singer to share his message? Why?

Illustrations that speak to us. Strange Fruit is brilliantly illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, who uses sweeping strokes, erratic lines, and blended colors to capture the flavor of jazz itself. Notice her attention to facial expressions. Even when other details are lost in the stir of color, we can almost read the minds of the characters on these pages. Notice too how the colors change—from bright and splashy in some scenes to dark and somber in others. How does this shift enhance the message?

The painting of Billie in a yellow dress at the opening of the book shows her virtually blending into the scene, becoming one with the music. What is the artist’s intent here—and how does it fit with the theme of the book?

Mixed responses to “Strange Fruit.” Singer Tony Bennett called the song “magnificent” (David Margolick, nytimes.com, Running Press). The New York Times dubbed it the “song of the century,” and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. Other artists have recorded it—including Nina Simone and Annie Lennox. It has inspired novels and films, and is still widely used in college and public school classrooms.

Yet, response to the song has not been universally positive. Look carefully at the faces in the illustration of Holiday’s first tentative performance at a Harlem gathering. What moods or emotional responses does artist Charlotte Riley-Webb capture here?

“Strange Fruit” reached 16th place on the music charts following its release in 1939, yet many radio stations refused to play it. Why do you think this was—and what message did their refusal send? Discuss this with your students.

What’s the book’s core message? Obviously, Billie Holiday shared a song that set America on edge. In recounting that story, how is author Gary Golio hoping we’ll respond as readers? Ask your students if they can sum up the message of the book in a single line. Record their responses and discuss them. Though their responses may vary, together they will create a larger truth.

Organization: Beginning right smack in the middle. Bio pieces typically open with the subject’s date and place of birth—but that cliché simply wouldn’t do for this book. Instead, Golio previews his lead with a quotation from Holiday herself: “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” These words set the stage for the actual opening line: “This time, Billie’d had enough.” And bang: We find ourselves in the midst of a volatile argument. What’s the argument about? Who’s going to win? Questions like these keep readers reading. Opening in the middle of things is a good strategy to share with students. Why? Because the most important part of any story rarely begins with a hero’s birth. Openings need to give readers something exciting to chew on. Background almost never does that. Action and controversy nearly always do.

Voice Collage. For years, this has been one of my favorite activities for teaching the concept of voice. It’s simple in concept, but the results are remarkable, and students of all ages are surprised by the drama it generates. Strange Fruit, with its vibrant characters, is a perfect book to initiate this exercise.

After reading Strange Fruit, invite students individually to choose a role they would like to assume for a short piece of original writing. Be sure every key role you identify is assumed by at least one student. Possibilities for this book might include—

  • Billie Holiday
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Billie’s mother
  • Barney Josephson
  • Any player in the band
  • Any member of the audience
  • Any other role you feel is significant: _________________

Have students/writers focus on one moment from the book. I might choose Billie’s first performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society. Ask students to write about this moment as if they were reflecting on it at the end of the day, and recording their heartfelt thoughts and feelings in a personal journal. They should write in an open, honest style—but in the voice of the role they have chosen. Each writer must imagine him- or herself as that person. Allow about ten minutes for this writing. (Students typically ask for more time, but you don’t want the pieces to grow too long.)

When they finish, have them divide their writing into two parts—at whatever point feels right. There is no “correct” way to do this. The purpose is simply to create two parts that will be read separately—and they do not need to be identical in length. Have writers indicate the division with a slash mark: /

Then ask volunteers, one person for each role, to perform their pieces aloud, read-around style: all the Part 1’s first, then (without pause) all the Part 2’s. Readers should NOT announce which role they are portraying. That should be obvious from the writing itself, and it dampens the theatrical effect if people make announcements. Imagine an actor turning to the audience and saying, “I’m Macbeth, by the way.”

Prepare to hear some very strong voice in the writing, and talk about that. You’ll notice another benefit, too. Voice collage takes writers to a deeper understanding of the characters involved in this or any book—their motives, reactions, joys and fears. Role playing through writing is a powerful way of interpreting text from multiple perspectives.

“The power of a protest song.” The subtitle of this book is significant. After all, “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem. Then Abel Meeropol set it to music. How do your students see the impact of this transformation? In other words, could a poem be just as powerful as a song? Or do songs have a power all their own?

Have any of your students ever sung a protest song? What is a protest song anyway? Look up “protest songs” online to assemble a list. Some titles may be songs your students would not even have recognized as “protest” songs. Choose one to perform as a class, and talk about how the very act of singing makes us feel. Why does music have such a strong influence on us?

Do you have musicians or poets in your class? If any of your students have written protest songs or poems, this would be a good time to perform them!

Speaking through the arts. Art is a compelling vehicle for nonviolent protest. Singer Billie Holiday—along with Abel Meeropol—used music to take a strong and important stand, and generations later, Billie’s voice still speaks to us. In what other ways can artists speak out against prejudice of any kind? Take time to research this with your students, seeing how many songs, paintings, sculptures, plays, films, speeches, or other forms of protest you can uncover. Make a list, book, or display of the results.

Some of us are singers, too. Or artists, dancers, actors, writers, or poets. Create a class collection of poems, essays, paintings, picture books, videos, podcasts, skits, or recordings that speak out against prejudice. That collection celebrates your students’ own courage and creativity.

 

About the Author . . .gary-golio

Gary Golio is the author of four nonfiction books about American musical legends, among them Bird and Diz an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow (reviewed here on Gurus), which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrator Javaka Steptoe. Gary also wrote Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year in four categories, and When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan—also a multi-award winner.

Currently, Gary lives in the Hudson Valley, with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich. When he’s not writing or painting, Gary visits schools and is happy to share not only thoughts on art and writing—but music too! He plays guitar, both electric and acoustic. “I’m a pretty good musician and an engaging speaker,” he says. “I loved to make kids laugh, and use humor to teach and entertain.” To arrange a school visit with Gary, or gather more information about his books, please contact him at www.garygolio.com

Coming Up on Gurus . . . insects

A big thank you to all the writers who have sent (or will be sending) books to review here on Gurus. I appreciate the trust you have placed in me, as well as the opportunity to take a deeper look at your extraordinary work—and share it with our teacher audience. Please keep those books coming! And please invite friends to visit Gurus also—where shortly I’ll be reviewing Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever (and it truly is) by celebrated nonfiction writer Sneed B. Collard. In the meantime . . .

 

A Book Recommendation for Your Classroom

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. 2017. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

This space is normally reserved for books I recommend to adult readers, but this time I had to makeone-last-word2 space for an exceptional new release. As a long-time fan of Nikki Grimes, I was delighted to discover her brilliant new book One Last Word, a compilation of poems from Harlem Renaissance poets—who were at their peak just when singer Billie Holiday was reaching hers. This gorgeous and thought provoking book is an ideal complement to Strange Fruit.

Grimes’ collection showcases the work of Jean Toomer, Clara Ann Thompson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes, and others. Poems like “Calling Dreams,” “We Wear the Mask” and “Mother to Son” speak of the strength and determination through which black Americans have overcome the most extreme hardships. The poems would be inspirational enough in their own right—but it gets better. This stirring anthology is enhanced by the illustrations of such artists as Frank Morrison, Brian Pinkney, Javaka Steptoe, Ebony Glenn, and Nikki Grimes herself.

What makes One Last Word such a masterpiece, though, is Grimes’ inclusion of something called Golden Shovel poetry. In her introductory “Poetry Form,” Grimes explains this approach in her own words: “The idea of a Golden Shovel poem is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original.” Grimes uses the following illustration to show how to place the chosen words

in

the

right

margin

Then, the challenge is to write a new poem, each line of which ends with one of the identified  words. Sound easy enough, right? It’s not! I urge you to try it—and of course, have your students try it, too. That way, you’ll be even more appreciative of Nikki Grimes’ genius. She creates a Golden Shovel poem for every Renaissance poem in this book. What’s more, her poems expand the themes of the originals. Now that’s a feat—from someone who is a poet at heart. Combine this book with Golio’s Strange Fruit for an incredible unit on black history and civil rights.

______________________________________________

Thank you for stopping by. Come often, and tell friends about our posts. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 woodward-vickijeff3249a

 

 

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. 2016. Afterword by Martha White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Biographic chapter book

Levels: Like White’s own work, this book speaks to virtually all ages. It is written for mid-elementary and up, but the illustrations will make it appealing even to very young readers, and the details will intrigue everyone, including adults.

Features: Irresistible illustrations in Melissa Sweet’s inimitable style; carefully selected family photos; telling and fascinating examples of White’s original handwritten drafts showing his notes and revisions; exceptionally thorough timeline, complete with book covers and other illustrations; a touching Afterword by White’s granddaughter Martha; revealing author’s notes from Melissa Sweet, detailing her hands-on research for the book; bibliography and index.

 some-writer

Overview

“I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since” (1). This opening line from Melissa Sweet’s reverent and captivating look at the life of beloved author E. B. White touched a nerve. I too grew up loving the sound of a manual typewriter. My father, a court reporter, typed his own depositions until he could afford a stenographer (that, eventually, became my first job). When he replaced his old Remington, he gave it to me. I was about seven. And though I didn’t type very fast at first, I was enchanted by the way this machine transformed the look of my letters and stories. Of course, electric typewriters and computers came along and made everything easier. But only someone who has hammered out copy on an old Remington or Royal or Corona can appreciate how nostalgic the very sight of a typewritten letter makes us old-time writers feel. You don’t have to love typewriters, however, to appreciate Sweet’s book. It’s one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.

From cover to cover, Some Writer! is positively gorgeous. Before I could settle down enough to read, I leafed through it several times, just soaking in the beauty. Sweet is a gifted, highly original artist, and her work is showcased here with a brilliant layout. It’s like walking through a literary garden. Pages feature a mix of Sweet’s endearing and folksy style, together with handwritten copy, Garth Williams’ charming and often hilarious drawings of the famous spider Charlotte, irresistible family photos—the kind you’d frame if they were yours—and a delightful blend of modern fonts with the occasional letter or memorable quotation written in the quirky, irregular type of the old Corona.

The text itself, minus the writer’s notes and other extras at the end, runs just over 130 pages, and they speed by. This book is everything you want a biography to be: not a stiff march through a dry fact-encumbered history, but an intimate peek into the everyday doings of someone we already love through his work. In one delightful anecdote, we discover that the White family thought of themselves as “city people,” but spent summers at Belgrade Lakes in New York, where Elwyn’s father rented two cabins. “The brothers,” Sweet tells us, “studied tortoises, tadpoles, and toads.” Regardless of weather, the whole family would crowd into the small skiff they named Jesse (after White’s water-fearing mother) and head for town. There, Elwyn’s father would buy a case of Moxie soda, “assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular as Moxie” (10). Little details like this—White’s father viewing Coca-Cola as the newfangled drink—make us feel as close to Elwyn as if we were attending a family picnic at the lake.

Other vignettes reveal that White was a good student, an avid reader, a musician (of sorts), a painfully shy person (something that remained true into his adult years), a lover of animals big and small, and a self-styled adventurer who loved hiking through the woods or getting out on the water. He began writing at a young age, winning his first literary award before he was ten (20). For years, White had his heart set on attending Cornell, but upon graduating from high school, felt it was his duty to join the Service and fight in World War I. Perhaps it’s lucky for us that the Army rejected him: he was too thin. So—on to Cornell, where he would acquire his life-long nickname Andy, and meet Professor William Strunk, Jr. We all know how that turned out.

To anyone who knew how shy White was, it was no surprise that the only thing he feared more than public speaking was talking to girls—they “terrified him” (19). That all changed, however, when he met Katharine Sergeant Angell. Katharine already had two children from another marriage, but she and White would welcome a third, Joel (called “Joe”), the light of White’s life. He would say at one point, “To a writer, a child is an alibi. If I should never in all my years write anything worth reading, I can always explain that by pointing to my child” (50). Within a short time, he would never need an alibi again.

Reading this book is a supremely joyful experience—one that no fan of E. B. White should miss. Every page brings another delightful discovery. Through Sweet’s words, White emerges as a deeply good person, someone who cared both about people and about the earth itself. He was humble and optimistic, surely two rare qualities these days. And though an indisputable genius, White never craved or sought attention in any form; he was genuinely happy on the farm. He loved children, and admired them for the right reasons—for their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity. White once wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around” (128). We don’t need to dig far. That voice that calls to us from the pages of Charlotte’s Web is no put-on; that’s E. B. White himself, as open and honest as the sky. When we lose a writer like White, the books remain as reminders and clues to that person’s innermost mind and heart. No wonder we treasure them. Sweet’s touching tribute makes a fine addition to an already unique collection.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. You may want to read Some Writer! more than once before sharing it with students. The text is so rich with detail that you simply can’t take it all in at once, and the illustrations add much to both the information and the voice. Looking at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that the book is divided into thirteen chapters, and one chapter is probably enough to share aloud at one time, or to discuss with a small group. Be sure to use a document projector so students do not miss even the tiniest feature of Sweet’s incredible paintings and sketches.

charlottes-web2

Background. Are your students familiar with E. B. White’s books? Some may have heard Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little read at home or school, or perhaps read these books on their own. Talk about what they know now and how they feel about E. B. White’s books. Are any familiar with the book titled The Elements of Style? Show them the books if you have copies. If some or most of your students have not read at least one of White’s books, you may want to choose one to share aloud prior to discussing the biography.

It’s also helpful to students—or any readers—to understand the time in which E. B. White lived. He was born into a very different world in 1899. Give the-elements-of-stylestudents time to do a little research to learn what life was like in those times. Who was president? What did people do for work—or entertainment? How many attended college? What modern conveniences or appliances did they have? What methods of transportation did they use?

William McKinley

William McKinley

 

typewriter4And by the way, what the heck is a typewriter? As I noted in my overview, the book opens with E. B. White expressing his love for the click of the typewriter keys. It would not be surprising if many of your students had no idea what a typewriter is. If you have access to one, bring it into class and let students type on it to feel the effort those keystrokes require compared to today’s turbo-charged keyboards! They may be surprised! Also note how different the print itself looks. It’s not sleek and modern. It’s bumpy and uneven, sometimes blurry in spots. And writers in White’s time could not choose from hundreds of fonts, something we take for granted today. How would it seem to produce important work like a book on this sort of machine? How long would it take—and what if you made a mistake? Could people type 100-120 words a minute on this primitive device? Answer: They could—and did!typewriter3

 

Format and genre. This is a biography, something different from an autobiography or memoir. Help your students feel comfortable with these slightly different, but related terms. A biography can be described as an account of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is an account of someone’s life written by the person him- or herself. A memoir is an anecdotal narrative based on firsthand experience. Memoirs often focus on a particular period or periods in a person’s life, and so may or may not be as complete as an autobiography.

car-driven-in-1899Central message. The central message in any biography answers the question, What was ______ really like? Instead of addressing this question all at once at the end of the book, try asking it chapter by chapter as author Melissa Sweet slowly reveals more—and more—about her subject. You might keep a running list of characteristics that describe E. B. White, adding to it as you go. By the way, notice the chapter titles. They’re creative, don’t you think? Do they also provide us with clues about each chapter’s content—and consequently, about White himself? Consider the importance of such clues to a reader. Would chapter titles or subtitles be something your students could use in their own writing to guide readers through a story or discussion?

Showing, not telling. If writing teachers have a favorite mantra, it’s “show, don’t tell.” Yet few things are more difficult to teach than this concept. Look for passages that show us something about E. B. White and his experiences without telling us outright. Consider this passage about a time Elwyn read a poem aloud from a stage in his school:

It had the line Footprints on the sands of time, but Elwyn’s words came out the tands of sime. Other kids started laughing and the moment on stage became even worse than En had imagined it would be. He could not finish. He vowed never to go up on a stage again. (3)

What is the author trying to show us about Elwyn in this passage?

A word about names . . . Notice, by the way, that E. B. White is called “En” here. Throughout his life, he goes by several different names. Have you or any of your students had this experience? Talk about what it is like to have more than one first name or nickname. Should a person be able to choose a favorite? Does E. B. White eventually do this?

Illustrations—and voice. As you go through the book notice the many forms illustrations take, and talk about the “flavor” they give to the narrative. Here are just a few examples:

  • Photographs
  • Paintings by author/illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Cartoons
  • Quotations
  • Drawings by E. B. White
  • Handwritten and typed text

Do the illustrations contribute to the voice of this particular book? In what way? What sort of voice do your students hear in this book? Boisterous? Quiet? Conversational? Comedic? Authoritative? Reverent? Or something else . . .

Do your students find the mix of illustrations (paintings, photos, etc.) appealing? Why? Have they considered mixing different types of illustrations in any of their own written work?

Thinking small. Choosing a topic can be one of the most challenging issues a writer faces. At one point, E. B. White confesses that he finds it satisfying to write about “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart” (37). Your students might feel the same way.

Get them started by modeling the brainstorming and selection of small topics. It’s easy—and your students will love it! Here are a few topics I would list as students look on (and yes, my list changes all the time, and by the time you read this, I’ll have half a dozen new ones I haven’t thought of yet):

  • BIG snow—and having too much of a good thing!img_2902
  • Tips for making really good scones
  • Relearning bridge—what’s fun, what’s hard
  • How birds stay alive in winter
  • How to look better at bowling than you are
  • Keeping in touch with friends far away
  • What I love about Tana French mysteries
  • Why sitcom laugh tracks are annoying
  • How long to keep leftovers before you can pitch them without guilt
  • Times when it’s simply NOT all right to look at your iPhone

These are little things on my mind right now. Your list won’t look anything like this—naturally. That’s the point. Topic lists are personal because as E. B. White discovered, we do our best writing about things close to our heart.

After modeling your list, break students into small groups and have each group come up with their “top 12 topics.” Share these aloud, then post them. Students can copy favorites into writing journals for later reference.

Where do you get your ideas? This question is a favorite one among students, especially those who have a chance to talk with a published author. Many writers will answer that they do not actually go in search of ideas; rather, ideas come to them—right out of own lives. This is definitely true for E. B. White. Where did White get the idea to write Charlotte’s Web? What about Stuart Little? Be sure students listen carefully for answers to these questions.

The significance of place. We don’t necessarily think of White’s writing as being about “place” per se, but in each of White’s books, setting plays a vital role. Read the description of the barn that opens Chapter 3 of Charlotte’s Web. You’ll see (and feel) at once how critical this setting is to the story that follows. (Note that White almost began the book with this description.) Share this passage aloud with your students. Ask what details they notice and how those details make them feel. What senses does White appeal to in this passage?

In one of the book’s most profound quotations (53), E. B. White tells us he can’t find words to explain what comes over him when he crosses the state line into Maine (the place where, as a boy, he spent summers with his family)—it’s “the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” Have your students experienced a place that affected them so deeply? Have you? Talk about this. Such places can range from a homey kitchen to an open prairie, from an apartment balcony to a corner coffee shop, bookstore, beach, bridge, attic, treehouse, lake-side hideaway, or anywhere your feet or mind can take you. Discuss one or two places that have had an emotional impact on you. Then give students a chance to come up with one or two of their own, talking with partners to generate ideas. Ask them to pick one place that stands out, and write about it. Remind them that places without names—like the barn from Charlotte’s Web—often make the best choices.the-trumpet-of-the-swan

Crafting an Argument: Book Reviews. On pages 68 through 74, Sweet recounts the striking differences between critics’ responses to Stuart Little and students’ responses. Critics were not universally enthusiastic, and some even considered the book inappropriate for school libraries. Children loved it, however, and bombarded White with personal letters that he treasured.

stuart-little2Your students may not agree with the critics about their favorite books, either. Have them search out online reviews for any book they like, checking to see if critics and other readers agree with their point of view. If not, have students write a one-page review, defending their position and including one or two quotations from the book to support their thinking. Consider publishing some reviews online. As an alternative, have students write directly to the author. If you cannot find an online POB or email address, you can reach any author by sending a letter in care of the publisher.

Revising leads. Among the most fascinating parts of Some Writer! is the history of how White struggled to find the most effective opening for Charlotte’s Web. From pages 86 through 92, we learn that he wrote many leads over a period of several months. Share this section aloud with students so they can appreciate how different these leads are—and how hard White worked to get this part right. Notice that he doesn’t just revise the wording. The whole setting and perspective changes from one revision to the next. White began with a very direct lead about Charlotte, then moved to Wilbur, then to the barn itself, and on to Mr. Arable. The lead he settled on for the final draft ranks as one of the strongest in literature. It’s both engaging—and startling. Read it aloud to see if your students agree. Compare the leads (paying close attention to the captions at the bottom of each page), and talk about what changes from one to another, and which lead your students feel works best. What exactly gives a lead the power to capture us as readers?

After discussing White’s examples, have students look for favorite leads from books they love, and read them aloud for the class. Then ask them to review a lead from their own writing and revise it at least twice. Encourage them to make bold changes of the sort E. B. White made to his own writing. Instead of simply changing a word or two, ask them to make each revision distinctly different from all others. When they finish, have them share their three versions with a partner or in a small writing group, and discuss which ones work best—and why.

The nature of revision. In school, we often practice revision as a one-time event. Students write a piece, then at some point revise it—and it’s finished. But clearly for E. B. White, as for nearly all professional writers, revision requires ongoing and repeated efforts, often over a long stretch of time. What does this difference tell us about the true nature of revision? Should this have an impact on the way we teach writing? Discuss this with students.

Hands-on research.  In the first part of Chapter 9, we discover how E. B. White learned about spiders. He spent over a year watching them. At one point, he actually kept eggs in a box, waited for the young spiders to hatch, and tracked their first movements. How many writers would take time for all this? And yet, consider how important this hands-on research was to Charlotte’s Web. What if White had tried to write the book without knowing any more about spiders than most of us know?

In addition to the information from Chapter 9, share Sweet’s “Author’s Note” on pages 135-136 aloud with your students. Did Sweet do some hands-on research of her own for this book? Talk about how this form of research differs from looking topics up in books or on the Internet. What makes firsthand research so valuable?

Have your students done any firsthand research of their own? If not, this could be a good time to start! As a class, choose a topic: raising chickens, yoga, hiking, cooking the perfect omelet—anything. Discuss ways a writer can learn about a topic in a personal way—a site visit, interview, observation, etc. Ask students to include at least one form of personal hands-on research next time they are gathering information for a nonfiction piece.

 Writing down to children. On page 130, the author quotes E. B. White’s strong views about never writing down to children. Share this paragraph aloud. Then have students write a personal response. Ask volunteers to share their responses. How do your students feel about the point White makes here? What exactly does “writing down” mean, and can your students identify any authors who do this? Why is it important for an author to respect his or her audience—or to think about them at all?

the-story-of-charlottes-web-michael-simsA Final Note . . . For more information on E. B. White’s writing process, see The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. 2011. New York: Walker and Company.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author . . .

Writer and illustrator Melissa Sweet lives with her family on the coast of Maine, near E. B. White’s former home. She has illustrated more than eighty children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor books The Right Word and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, both written by Jen Bryant. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards. She also wrote and illustrated Tupelo Rides the Rails; Carmine: A Little More Red, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Balloons Over Broadway, a picture book biography that won the Sibert Medal and was named a 2011 Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Picture Book. When she is not in her studio, Melissa can be found taking an art class, hiking with her dogs, or riding her bicycle.

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway

A River of Words

A River of Words

Of her field research, Melissa said this in a 2014 interview: “When I set out, I travel with a small studio: camera, sketchbook, pens and pencils. But oftentimes I get somewhere and it’s more about taking time to soak up what I’m seeing without being too diligent about recording it. The impressions of a place or archival material can be as inspiring as the meticulous details.”

To read more of this fascinating interview, check out www.artofthepicturebook.com  You can also visit Melissa at www.melissasweet.net

Author Sneed Collard

Author Sneed Collard

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Great news! Our book is a reality! Teaching Nonfiction Revision is currently in production with Heinemann, and my wonderful co-author Sneed B. Collard and I are eagerly awaiting release—tentatively scheduled for early fall. This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional writer—Sneed. For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Fire Birds

Fire Birds

In our new book, Sneed details his tips and strategies for revising nonfiction both concisely and effectively. He’s a seasoned, imaginative writer who knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. He’s also enormously fun to work with. (I have a rule: Never work with someone who has no sense of humor. Sooner or later, you always regret it.)

 

My part as co-author has been to translate Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons that teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. If you teach nonfiction writing, Sneed and I are confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable (not to mention outrageously fun to read) addition to your professional collection. And by the way, my colleague and fellow guru Jeff Hicks has promised to review the book in a future post, and we cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you so much, Jeff! We’ll have more information on the release date as soon as we know it.

 

Just-for-Fun Book Recommendation: Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Books for Living

Books for Living

I have a simple way of determining how good a film is: Even before it’s over, I know I’ll watch it again. I judge books the same way. Admittedly, I don’t always read the whole book when I return, but I do return, and that’s the point. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe is one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. Because it’s supremely well written, because it’s a profound, heartfelt and often funny (at times deeply touching) look at the meaning of life, and because author Will Schwalbe responds to some of my own favorite books, including The Girl on the Train, David Copperfield, Wonder, Gift from the Sea, 1984, Song of Solomon, and—one that influenced me immeasurably—Bird by Bird.

Each chapter focuses on one book—26 in all—and how that book affected Schwalbe or shaped his view of bird-by-birdlife. In addition, each chapter has a theme, inspired by the chosen book. Schwalbe is quick to point out in his introduction that not all the books are his personal favorites, nor would they necessarily make the “greatest books of all time” list:

What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. (17)

He adds that any reader can make a list like this, and he recommends it because “it’s a path to creating your own personal philosophy” (18).

just-take-it-bird-by-birdI couldn’t help noticing what a radical and refreshing departure this is from the usual book reports we so often ask students to do. Why, I thought, couldn’t students take this same approach, writing about books that have moved them deeply and made a difference in how they see things—or books that have helped them navigate a troubled time? Read a selected chapter or two from Books for Living aloud, and I can almost guarantee that your students will want to do this very thing. Of course, this is a wide open prairie-without-fences approach to reading—and writing. Instead of defining those books that we think students should find meaningful, we let them decide that on their own. Maybe that’s wiser than we think, though. As Schwalbe reminds us, the idea that there is a “Ginsu knife” book—the book that can be all things to everyone—is a myth. What is true, however, is that there’s always a Ginsu knife book for each of us for a particular time and situation.

By the way, one of the books Schwalbe discusses is Stuart Little. I highly recommend reading this chapter aloud in conjunction with discussing Melissa Sweet’s book Some Writer! It not only captures the complexity of Stuart’s character, but more important, shows why E. B. White’s work is not only timeless, but also reaches an impressively wide range of readers, from five to ninety five. You’ll love Schwalbe’s book, and I’m betting you’ll want to create, along with your students, a similar book of your own.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

woodward-vickijeff3249a

a-black-hole-is-not-a-hole

A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. 2012. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

Levels: Aimed at grade 4 and up, but appropriate and engaging for any grade level, including adults.

Features: Striking and informative illustrations, strong nonfiction voice, exceptionally thorough glossary, expansive timeline from pre-17th Century to the present—and beyond, excellent resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” That playful description gives you a hint about Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s irresistibly charming nonfiction voice. But it doesn’t begin to reveal how much information the author packs into her 61-page account of this outer space phenomenon.

In a book written both to inform and amuse, the author manages to be scientific without being overly technical. Her conversational style—reminiscent of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science guy, and other fine nonfiction authors—makes readers eager to pull up a chair and learn everything possible about black holes.

We discover at the outset that black holes are not what we might think. For one thing, they’re not holes. They’re also not monsters, gobbling up everything in the universe. But yes, they can and do pull things in—things as small as dust or as large as stars—and what goes in never comes out. Not even light can escape. That’s because “a black hole’s pull us the strongest pull in the entire universe,” stronger than any “fleet of giant rocket engines” (5). And though black holes may not plot or strategize, DeCristofano imbues them with an unmistakable element of danger that only adds to their allure.

The book is beautifully organized, divided into eight short chapters, each with its own theme. We begin with a description of black holes, what they are and how they operate, then consider the enormity of their gravitational pull, the way in which a black hole is formed, and the unimaginable blackness itself. The author wraps things up by first treating us to an imaginary tour inside a black hole, suggesting how things might look and feel if somehow we could make the journey—which of course we cannot. It’s too far (an understatement) and the effects would be, let’s say, dire: “The pull from the black hole would force your body into a long, skinny, stringy shape” (51). Just what I wanted for the New Year!, you’re thinking—but actually, this undesirable effect, known as “spaghettification,” doesn’t end well at all. When it comes to travel destinations, black holes do not make the list. In the final chapter, we get a peek at the “strange new universe” conceived by Einstein and others, a place where space can stretch and bend (55), and Newton’s law of gravity is given a new twist.

Every great nonfiction book offers readers something to love, and this one is no exception. First, DeCristofano’s voice never settles into the mundane. Throughout the book, she retains a tone of vibrant curiosity as if she were making discoveries right along with us. Second, thanks to the author’s exhaustive research, this book is filled with intriguing, little known bits of information. For example, what’s the likelihood that we ourselves will be swallowed by a black hole? Don’t let it keep you awake. Turns out we’re quadrillions of miles from the closest one. (To find out how many zeroes are in a quadrillion, check out the brilliant chart on page 6.) In addition, the author is a veritable master of similes and metaphors—which I happen to love because they make complex ideas accessible. In one chapter, she compares black holes to whirlpools. Though they may not be exactly alike, we get the idea. It gives us an image to cling to, and that’s important when discussing something as elusive as a black hole that exists in black space.

Finally, this book is brilliantly illustrated—in a range of styles that blend beautifully and fully complement the text. Illustrations include Michael Carroll’s striking paintings and whimsical cartoons, along with stunning photos from NASA and other sources. Together, these illustrations make us feel as if we are on a space flight, searching for mysterious black holes ourselves.

By the way, will our own sun become a black hole one day? Apparently  . . . that’s impossible. Read the book to find out why.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole is an ideal discussion book for a small group, but you can also read it aloud if you divide it into chapters. Please do read at least selected passages aloud since this book offers such an outstanding illustration of nonfiction voice. In addition, use a document projector if you can; students will find the illustrations fascinating and informative.

 

Background. What do your students know about black holes now? You might have them write a definition of a black hole. This isn’t a quiz! It’s a chance for them to see what they know prior to reading or hearing the book compared to what they learn as they go through it. You might also make a class list of the main questions your students have about black holes. Then compare your class list with the seven questions on the front inside flap of the book jacket. How many questions match? And how many of their questions are answered by reading the book? Note: When you finish the book, have students write a second definition of a black hole, comparing it to what they wrote at first. What ideas or perceptions have changed?

Coming to “terms” with the content. Fully understanding the book requires knowledge of a little scientific terminology. The author is very good at explaining new terms and ideas in context, but you can help students get even more out of the book by introducing a few terms from the glossary either up front or as you encounter them. Doing so also gives you a chance to acquaint students with the benefits of referring to a glossary often as you read. Recommended terms to emphasize: black hole, energy, event horizon, force, galaxy, gravity, light year, matter, quasar, radio galaxy, singularity, star, supernova, white dwarf.

Format and genre. Many students—and adults—equate picture books with stories. Maybe your students do, too. Ask them. Then mention that an increasing number of picture books—particularly those aimed at older students—are nonfiction. This trend has literally exploded over recent decades. (Why do you and your students think that might be?) You might also ask how they define “nonfiction” in their own minds. In fact, nonfiction is a large genre that can include everything from biographies and memoirs to histories, news reports, documentary videos, scientific analyses, nonfiction picture books, and much more. In terms of genre, how would your students describe A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole? After discussing this with them, you might share your own thoughts—along with mine: It’s fact, not fiction. We can also describe it as informational writing, based on scientific research. Read Carolyn Cinami CeDrostofano’s “Author’s Note” (pages 70-71) for details on how she compiled her information.

The message. Nonfiction books should teach readers something important or interesting. Even casual readers will pick up numerous bits of information about black holes, stars, galaxies, and the known and unknown universe. But—is there a larger message here? What central idea (or ideas) does the author hope we take away from reading this book? Hint: To zero in on this, try comparing common myths about black holes to the impressions with which the author leaves us by the end of the book.

The details. One helpful way to think about details is to ask students what information, if any, was new—or surprising. Nonfiction authors—the good ones, anyway—are always full of surprises. We wouldn’t read their books otherwise. You can model this with just the introduction and first chapter. Make a list of things that surprised you. For me, that would include the following (and if you teach science, then probably these weren’t surprises—but you can call them interesting reminders):

  • A black hole is not really a hole
  • It’s trillions of miles from Earth to the closest star
  • Stars look close together in the night sky—but are trillions of miles apart
  • A black hole has the strongest pull in the universe
  • A black hole can pull in stars and asteroids—in fact, nothing whatsoever can resist it

Looking at details in this way—as tidbits of surprising or hard-to-forget information—helps students understand what to include in their own writing. The details that matter, the ones to sift from their own research, are those that will make a reader say, “No kidding? I never knew that!”

Voice. No one without a strong sense of her own voice would dare call Einstein “a radical smarty-pants” (55). DeCristofano pulls it off with nary a blink. She is having a good time thinking and writing about space, and that kind of joy is infectious. If you share the book, or parts of it aloud, you can ask students to point out moments where they hear the author’s voice most clearly. Have them identify strong passages, study them together—using a document projector if you have one—and try to figure out what creates the voice. Is it wording? Humor? Striking details? Something more?

In addition, talk about the role of voice in nonfiction. I happen to think it’s essential in most writing (contracts, medical reports, and the like being exceptions of course). If a writer is excited about a topic, there’s no reason that enthusiasm shouldn’t come through in her writing. In writing that serves an informational purpose, though, what is the role of voice? Talk about this, perhaps by comparing DeCristofano’s book to any nonfiction piece without voice. Encyclopedias and many textbooks provide good examples.

Illustrations. Ask students to notice the different types of illustrations that appear throughout the text. Discuss the various purposes illustrations serve: to amuse us, teach us something, add to the mood or appeal of the book. Was the choice to use a blend of illustrations a good one in this case—for this subject and this author’s approach to her subject? Why? What if the book contained only photographs or only cartoons? What would be lost? Or suppose it had no illustrations at all. What would happen then?

 Drafting an argument. Do your students have any guess about how much money the U.S. spends on space research and exploration? Has the amount gone up or down in recent years? You can check out the facts online at this or another website:

http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

Discuss this issue with students. Are we spending about the right amount—especially now that China and India are more active in space exploration, along with the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency? Should we be more competitive and aggressive in our spending? Or perhaps pull back and commit this money to some other endeavor? Give students a chance to research this topic briefly and discuss it in small groups. Then ask them to craft an argument supporting one of the following:

  • Increase spending on space exploration
  • Decrease spending
  • Maintain current levels of spending

Remind them to include strong reasons to back their position and to cite specific data and sources for that data. By the way, if your students are fortunate enough to know someone with relevant information or experience relevant to this topic, invite that person in for a class interview. The results will enrich your students’ writing immeasurably.

 Further research. Want to see a terrific video about black holes? Look up “nonfiction videos on black holes” online for a wide selection. Many are under two minutes long, allowing you to watch several within the span of a lesson. They may answer additional questions raised by the book. And seeing a black hole in motion—even an animated rendition—is an educational experience!

 

About the Author . . .

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is a science education consultant and award winning author. She has been named a Creative Teaching Partner (specialty: Curriculum and Planning) by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and has developed science programs with NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Early on, Carolyn enjoyed writing and imagined herself as a writer. As her interest in science grew, she found creative ways to combine the two.

“For the past fifteen or so years,” she says, “I have been fortunate to work with teachers, museum educators, and educational researchers on fascinating projects. But I have never really stopped writing. I write poetry—but don’t share it often. I try to write stories, too. And I thoroughly enjoy shaping engaging science books that I hope will capture the reader’s imagination on lots of different levels.”

Carolyn works with educators to help integrate writing—notably science writing—into the broader school curriculum. Visit Carolyn at her website: www.carolyndecristofano.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Welcome back! We hope you had a glorious winter break, and perhaps enjoyed a little snow—maybe not as much as we’ve had in Oregon. As I write this, we are working on our sixth foot of powder, definitely more than needed for cross country skiing, especially if you are the one breaking trail.

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Jeff continues his work with fifth graders and is also teaching curling now. If I were in Beaverton, I’d say, “Sign me up!” Meanwhile, when I’m not shoveling (which is hardly ever anymore) I continue to work on my new nonfiction book. And no, it’s not a myth. It’s real—and we will announce it soon.img_2895

What do you do when it snows? Besides wishing for a snow blower? Right! You read! I craved a little break from my steady diet of nonfiction and discovered I love the deliciously dark and gritty mysteries by Tana French. I highly recommend her newest, The Trespasser. Fans of the AMC series “The Killing” will quickly recognize how much the prickly tension between two crackerjack detectives—one male and one female—can add to any story. They’re partners, make no mistake, but they keep each other on point at all times.

the-trespasserI like the format of French’s books. She doesn’t bury readers in a barrage of gory details, or set up clichéd plots in which a sadist stalks a helpless victim who’s cringing in a corner. Her characters are realistic, and so are their motives. But this isn’t “Columbo,” and there’s a lot we don’t know when we first witness the crime scene—including who the killer might be. Gradually, French serves up healthy doses of clues, and lets you work on “the solve,” which is never as easy as it first appears.

Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran persist in digging for the truth, even when taunted by the rest of the Murder squad to get on with it and move to the next case. We get to dig with them, seeing every piece of evidence and every potential witness as a detective would. The level of detail in French’s writing is absolutely astonishing—and thoroughly fascinating. Add to that, French’s knowledge of police procedures is impressive and the interrogation room interviews are as compelling as any I’ve read by any author—ever.

Her characters are real—and gritty. Detective Moran, like the Stephen Holder character in “The Killing,” is consistently smarter than he lets on, and is the perfect foil for Detective Conway, whose in your face style and colorful vocabulary would stop most sailors in their tracks. She takes no prisoners, and luckily is immune to insults since she receives plenty. Feisty, brilliant, intuitive, and unapologetic, Conway is a match for pretty much anything that stumbles into her path, from overbearing superiors to ingenious killers. I loved her—and am hoping she appears in many future books by Tana French. So much for mysteries . . .

Are you a fan of nonfiction? Then, rejoice. We’ll be doing more nonfiction reviews in future posts. Meanwhile . . . Give every child a voice.

vicki_jeff_small

 

drowned-city

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown. 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

Levels: Aimed at middle school and up, but a riveting resource for interested readers of all ages, including both younger children and adults.

Features: Striking graphic illustrations, easy to read text, expansive resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water.” That’s the first line on the dust jacket—and will give you a hint about how much you can learn from this highly readable, impressively researched historical narrative.

The story opens with how Katrina began, as a tiny, “unremarkable” wind in Africa. We follow Katrina across the Atlantic as she grows large enough to be given a name, and then powerful enough to ignite terror. In the first half of the book, we witness the 1.2 million citizens of New Orleans receiving news of the approaching storm, then preparing to evacuate—or unbelievably, to stay. It feels as if we’re right there with them as they wait in apprehension, huddling within structures that will be no match for what’s coming. We see them frantically struggle to protect their children, pry victims from sinking cars, and finally—in shocking numbers—lose their homes, belongings, pets, and loved ones. Battling a world that’s become surreal, more than fourteen hundred people die, some overwhelmed by the storm surge, others racing to escape rising floods, a few trapped in attics without tools to break through their own roofs.

The second half of the book depicts rescue efforts on all levels—from federal down to individual. Brown honestly portrays the poorly coordinated government efforts to provide shelter and help to people who have lost everything. Stranded citizens cling to rooftops and floating debris hoping that someone with a boat will miraculously head their way. For too many, that doesn’t happen. Constantly wet and shut off from all communication, survivors find themselves without food, clean water, blankets, plumbing, electricity, medical help—or means of escape. They watch cars and houses float like toys down “rivers” that used to be familiar streets. In the convention center and superdome, where thousands eventually take shelter, conditions are abysmal: overcrowded and filthy, with no fresh air and often nowhere to sit but the floor.

In the face of all this despair, Brown reminds us, there is light. Hospitals do what they can. Coast Guard men and women hoist people from rooftops. The Red Cross opens over five hundred shelters across twelve states. Texas, Arkansas, and other states take in refugees, once they are able to leave the city. Even as rain thunders down, brave volunteers venture out in their own small boats. Some wade or swim through toxic flood waters, risking lethal infection, to save friends, neighbors—even strangers. They persist in the face of explosions, fires, snakes, and gunshots. Gradually, the storm subsides, and the deadly waters that drowned New Orleans seep away, inch by inch, leaving horrifying mounds of detritus in their wake.

At 91 quick pages—they fly by—the book is a dramatic and intense portrayal of what can happen when we are unprepared for the worst that nature can deal out. And when government agencies and officials fail to respond quickly despite evidence of abject suffering. In stunning contrast, though, the book also shines a welcome light upon the courage of everyday Americans who risk everything to save others. In his direct, unflinching style, Don Brown shows us America at its absolute worst—and best.

Drowned City, which marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, is a fitting, brilliantly written, visually stunning tribute to the people—residents, rescuers, and some who were both—that fought bravely against insurmountable odds. Though many evacuees never returned to New Orleans, it’s worth remembering that others continue to rebuild, even to this day.

drowned-city-2

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Drowned City is an ideal discussion book for a small reading group—or for the whole class if you have enough copies to share. Despite the length, it’s a quick read, but expect students to spend extra time studying the illustrations. You can also read it aloud with the aid of a document projector. This book MUST be seen, not just heard. If you share it this way, plan to spend several class periods because you do not want to rush. Invite comments as you go.

Background. Do your students have knowledge of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath? How many have heard of Katrina, and know when it struck and where? Do any of them know someone who was affected? This is a highly sensitive question, of course; but if any of your students have personal histories to share, their insights can greatly enrich your discussion.

If you live in Louisiana or a neighboring state, your students have likely heard many accounts relating to Katrina. For students who are not familiar with the facts or circumstances, however, it may be helpful to provide some factual background about hurricanes in general and their deadly power.

A check under “hurricane facts” online will lead you to such informational tidbits as

  • The wind speeds of hurricanes in categories 1 (weakest) through 5 (strongest)
  • The number of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last 100 years
  • The states most often struck by hurricanes
  • Dates of the hurricane “season” on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  • Origin of the word “hurricane”
  • How the tradition of naming hurricanes began
  • The forecasting of hurricanes
  • Meaning of related terms, such as “surge” . . .

 

. . . and much more. Such information will give students a deeper appreciation of the book.

Format and genre. The first thing you’re likely to notice about Drowned City is the format. It’s a graphic nonfiction history, a genre greatly appealing to many young readers. Over the past three decades, graphic novels and histories have grown immeasurably in popularity and attained an impressive level of sophistication. Language and art blend to recount events with a power neither could match on its own.

Brown has his own artistic style, simple and raw. The facial expressions, which he brilliantly depicts using only a few brush strokes, indelibly capture Katrina’s impact on people of the Gulf Coast. These are not photographs, but if they were, we’d be saying, “How did he manage to get that shot?” He seems to know precisely what to illustrate—and just what details will intrigue, touch or startle us. Before actually reading the text, leaf through a portion to give students a feel for the overall “look” of the document. What emotional response do the illustrations arouse—even before students hear the author’s words? How would your students describe Brown’s highly individual artistic approach?

Not comic books. Though they share some similarities, graphic novels and histories are not comic books. What is the difference, though? Look at them side by side, and discuss the similarities the two genres share—and any differences you identify.

A footnote: In the publishing industry, books in this genre are typically called “graphic novels,” though the term can be somewhat confusing since novels are fiction and tend to be lengthy. This book is neither. Help students understand that “graphic novel” is a publishers’ term and quite different from “novel” as we usually think of it. The history of the graphic novel, by the way, makes a fine topic for informational research.

 

Color and mood. As you page through the book, notice the colors Brown chooses for his artwork. Ask students to reflect on the ways these colors influence the message and mood of the narrative. How does Brown want us as readers to feel? Also look for occasional hints of bright color. When and where do they appear—and what might they represent?

The big idea—or message. Every good nonfiction book has a big idea. Behind all the facts and anecdotes, there’s a message, something the author wants us to think about. As you share Drowned City, ask your students to think about the underlying message, or messages. There could be more than one. Talk about this as a class—or have students share their own thoughts in writing journals.

Organization. Unlike many books of comparable length, Drowned City is not divided into chapters. Yet it reads almost as if it were. It is easy to transition from one discussion to another. What organizational devices does author Don Brown use to keep us on track? Note that you may need to review the book more than one time to notice how he achieves this smooth topic-to-topic flow.

Following are some elements you may want to share with students once they’ve had a chance to express their own ideas about organizational structure:

 

  • Time: Time is a critical organizational device in this book, and with good reason. The people of New Orleans—and indeed people throughout the world—know the hurricane will strike long before it happens. This allows the author to take us through a period of tense anticipation, followed by the climax of the actual storm, and then an aftermath when many of the city’s most serious problems are just beginning. With respect to dates, the book opens in early August 2005 and rushes headlong toward the moment of crisis on August 29. Though the primary narrative concludes on October 2, when New Orleans is finally dry again, there’s also an epilogue on the final pages, a look back from the perspective of 2012.

 

  • Scene shifts: We move from place to place, and from one perspective to another. For example, we shift from Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, from the struggling victims swimming or clinging to rooftops to the rescuers in boats and helicopters, from the streets rapidly becoming rivers to the convention center and superdome, from the frantic chaos of New Orleans to the complacency of the White House. Such shifts give us a sweeping perspective on a complex catastrophe—like watching several films all at one time—and help us understand the multiple and simultaneous ways in which human lives changed when Katrina hit.

 

  • Pacing: With so much to tell, Brown has to keep things moving, and he does. In the half hour or so it takes to read and reflect on this book, he touches on numerous events, leaping quickly from one to another, helping us experience the frenzy the people of New Orleans must have felt. One moment we’re watching neighbors rescue one another from rooftops, and the next we’re standing in unbearable heat outside the convention center, waiting to board an over-crowded bus. By holding himself to a few lines for each scene, Brown covers an impressive amount of territory with a few words.

 

  • Lead and conclusion: I used to tell students that a good lead and conclusion are like bookends, holding details together. They work just that way in Brown’s book. He opens by telling us how inconspicuously a hurricane begins—it’s scarcely more than a small, seemingly innocent puff of wind. This surprises us, and compels us to read on, to find out how a small gust of air becomes a force of death. The conclusion is equally striking. We learn that many people have, remarkably, survived this wretched bout with nature, and it’s a testament to human endurance.

 

 

Voice. This book resounds with voice. It’s powerful, but controlled. There’s enough tension that Brown doesn’t need to embellish anything. He lets the facts speak for themselves. He is present on every page, though, present in the details he shares, the illustrations he creates to enhance them, and the words he chooses to engage us: Hurricane Katrina “crashes” ashore just post-dawn on August 29 and “erases” the town of Buras, Louisiana. Later, when the electricity goes out, night “swallows” New Orleans, and the next day people “melt” at an overcrowded convention center where it’s hard to breathe and the air reeks of human waste. On every page, we remain in touch with human panic, despair, and frustration. Occasionally, the people of New Orleans speak to us, and their words are authentic. As Brown’s source list shows us, he has pulled his quotations directly from books and news accounts of the disaster. They’re real, not invented, and we can feel the difference. In one scene, a mother stranded on a rooftop hugs her child and says simply, “Oh, baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it” (from Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, 2008, 10).

Personal response. Some of us identify with books like this because we have been through a similar situation or know someone who has—or because the author’s writing causes us to empathize with the characters. After reading the book, but before discussing it in depth, give students a chance to express their own feelings in writing. They may also wish to share these responses in small writing groups of three or four students.

Choosing facts wisely. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book like this is deciding what to tell—and what to leave out. Have a look at the bibliography, page 95, and share some of the sources with students. Talk about the kinds of sources Brown relies on, and the breadth of his research. Are students surprised to learn that for a book this length a writer would conduct such extensive research?

Ask them to imagine the notes and facts Brown must have collected as he investigated Katrina. With such an overwhelming amount of information at hand, how does an author decide which facts to share—and which to simply abandon?

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

First, ask students what they learn from the book. What information is new to them? Were there surprises? Are there facts or anecdotes they will not readily forget?

Second, go through the book slowly, looking for the most striking details, those that stand out or go beyond what we might hear in nightly news accounts. For example, check out page 41, which shows people in their own boats dodging swarms of cockroaches or “knots” of poisonous snakes. What other details make a similarly striking impression?

In discussing factual highlights that capture your students’ attention, talk about the criteria that nonfiction writers—including your students—should use in selecting details to share with readers. List some of those criteria and have students refer to them as they research and write nonfiction pieces of their own.

Drafting an argument. Look again at the information Brown shares on pages 8 and 9. We learn that the people of New Orleans had a 24-hour warning to evacuate before the city was hit with a storm surge “twenty-five feet above normal.” Yet many chose to remain. By the time the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation, it was too late (10). Though some people had no means to escape—having neither a car nor money for any sort of transportation—many made a deliberate choice to stay. Was this right? What would your students do? Have them write about this, creating an argument based on the following—or a related topic of their own:

 

  • Are people in a danger zone obliged to evacuate if they can? Or should that decision be completely their own? Why?

 

One of the primary issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina is the role that government, local or federal, should play in protecting citizens from disaster—or rescuing them later. After sharing Brown’s book, talk about some of the things that went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Could the government have done more? After discussing this, have students formulate an argument based on this or a related topic:

 

  • What role should the government play in protecting citizens from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? And what, if anything, is a citizen’s own responsibility?

 

Further research. For additional information about Hurricane Katrina or the rebuilding effort, students can check online under New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and Army Corps of Engineers. Don Brown’s bibliography lists many useful sources. Your school, city, or county library can also suggest books or articles to help writers further their research. Numerous films are available as well, and you may wish to view one as a class (see “Films on Hurricane Katrina” for ideas). You may also want to consider interviewing someone with relevant knowledge or experience . . .

Conducting an interview. One good way to learn more about any topic is by interviewing someone with special knowledge. Sometimes a writer is lucky enough to arrange a personal interview—but if that is not possible, an interview via phone or email (or Skype) is the next best thing. Here are a few people your students might want to consult—and likely you can think of others:

 

  • A current or former resident of New Orleans with firsthand knowledge of Katrina
  • A relative or friend of such a person—or anyone knows the history of Katrina well
  • A local meteorologist with insights about current technology used in forecasting hurricanes
  • Someone with a background in conducting or managing rescue efforts—for example, a member of the Coast Guard, a firefighter, or an emergency medical specialist
  • An engineer who can discuss what towns or cities do these days to make themselves more flood-resistant
  • Anyone who has been part of an evacuation effort
  • A mayor or other official who can respond to questions about the role government plays in preventing or handling disasters
  • A journalist or writer who has researched or written about disasters such as Katrina

To learn more about setting up an interview, check on line under “How to Set Up a Phone Interview” or “How to Set Up an Email Interview.” Ahead of time, lay out the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. Give students a chance to practice their interviewing skills, with you playing the role of the “interviewee.” Remember to ask for permission to record the interview or to take photographs, should you want to do that.

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About Author Don Brown . . .

Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than two dozen picture book biographies and other history books for children. Throughout his career, Brown has introduced young readers to such well known figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Dolly Madison.

His books have also explored important events, including the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the sinking of the Titanic, and the duel of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. One of his most recent publications, America Is Under Attack, offers readers a sensitive look at the tragic events of September 11th.

Don’s books have received numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Horn Book Honor and the William Allen White Award. One of the author’s histories, The Great American Dustbowl, has been nominated for the Texas Blue Bonnet Award. Drowned City was published in August 2015 on the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and recently won the 2016 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, which recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing for children. Don Brown also makes presentations to students around the country. You can follow his work on www.booksbybrown.com

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for returning! We hope you had a wonderful summer, and squeezed in time for family, travel, pets, reading, hiking, or whatever creates the joy in your life. Speaking of pure, unadulterated joy . . . congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. Even if you’re not a fan—heck, even if you don’t like baseball all that much—you have to feel good about a team that finally, finally puts an end to a 108-year drought. And by the way, congratulations to Cleveland as well. The Chicago victory would not have been nearly so sweet had the Indians not played their hearts out and made all those score crushing homers and gravity defying catches. What a Series. In other news . . .

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders, and will soon, I am sure, have stories to share on his experiences.

In the meantime, I am searching out the very best in nonfiction books as background for a new book I’m writing—to be announced soon! Drowned City was to my mind one of the best nonfiction books for young readers that I’d come across in a while. I hope you like it as much as I did.

A quick, personal note . . . I saw a lovely middle school student interviewed on the morning news. She was writing a letter to her older self to be opened about ten years from now. It was a moving and thoughtful letter, filled with the kind of humor and wisdom that made me wish she lived right next door and would stop by and visit while I’m out gardening. The advice she gave to herself ran along these lines . . . Don’t be swayed by others. Trust yourself, your own mind, your own heart. I liked that. Behind her on the classroom wall was a six-trait poster. No implied connection whatsoever. Just a good moment.

Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff Hicks at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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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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I know that the end of another school year is just around the corner—I’m sure that none of you are counting the days. You’re all too busy teaching your fingers to the bone, keeping students engaged, focused, and learning, squeezing the most out of the last weeks (or days) of school. Soon, very soon, your mind will be able to shake itself loose from teacher mode. Thoughts of summer, carefree relaxation with an icy beverage or two will take over and you’ll begin the important process of recharging your professional batteries, gulping it in like an all-electric vehicle at a charging station. But we all know that it’s possible, after the initial phase of summer’s mind-scrubbing decompression, because of who you are—a reflective professional—that you might permit a few thoughts of August and September to creep in and get you thinking about next year. To make sure you are ready for that moment, I’m going to recommend an excellent writing contest for your next batch of students and a few book ideas (to read aloud or recommend to students) for your post-murder mystery/romance/spy thriller summer reading. After all, you’re a teacher! You know you can’t block it out for very long. Admit it–it’s who you are. It’s how you roll.

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Writing Contest—Letters About Literature: Read. Be inspired. Write Back

Once I discovered this contest years ago, I never missed getting my students involved. It’s sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. You can find all you need to know about how to enter and important deadlines at: www.read.gov/letters/ Here’s a sample from the website to give you the basics—“Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem, or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.”

The letters students write for this contest are not the typical fan letters students often write to favorite authors where they ask the writer questions—Where did you get the idea for this book? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you think there will ever be a movie bout your book? The purpose of these letters is to talk directly to authors—reader to writer—to let them know how a book impacted the reader’s life—how the book got inside the reader’s head and heart, how it may have changed some aspect of their life. Here are example letters from two of my former students, both eighth graders. (The judging categories are Level I—grades 4-6, Level II—grades 7-8, Level III—grades 9-12.) The first letter is from a student that you might call an avid reader/writer and the second is from a more reluctant reader/writer.

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Letter #1 (Winner—Honorable Mention, state level—Oregon)
To author Han Nolan
Book: If I Should Die Before I Wake
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Han Nolan,
Your book “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” made me look at the people around me in a different way. Chana’s strength and perception made me start focusing more on peoples’ actions, ideas, and views rather than what they own, who they know, or what their dreams are.
When Chana and her family are in the concentration camp, their thoughts and actions are magnified, because that’s all they have left. The Jews are put in a place where they are forced to work without food, to obey commands and given no clothing, to sweat, starve and die under the cold, watchful eyes of the Germans. Chana had to have strength of character and the courage of her convictions to survive. The harsh conditions of the damp brought out the best and worst in people — character traits that never would have shown up otherwise. The part of the book that really got inside my head was when Chana found herself in a position to kill one of the German guards who had caused her and everyone else in the camp so much pain.
               “I was not a girl with dreams of someday becoming a great violinist, or of getting married and having children. I was not a girl with a family, or a house, or fancy clothes. I was not someone who belonged to a shul, or was known for her brown wavy hair with a strand that always jutted out in the back. I could no longer identify myself by what I owned, or who I knew, or what my dreams were. This—my body, my mind, my soul—was all I was. It is all any of us ever are, and without the camouflage of my dreams and possessions, I realized that everything I did, every thought i had, was all I was. It was all very simple. If I killed the guard, all of who I was would be a murderer, not a murderer and a violinist who lived in a house and had a nice family—just a murderer. If I showed love, all of me would be a lover. Who then did I want to be?”
                 Separated from their families, stripped of their clothes, and living in tiny, freezing barracks with greasy kitchens, the hearts of the Jews are revealed.
Their thoughts and actions become all they are. It is all we ever are, but we never learn to see that because we live in disguise, masked by our possessions, our dreams, our position in society.
This got me thinking…without my possessions and dreams, who would I be? I would not be a girl who had a nice family and went to school. I would not be a girl who loved books and art, would not be a girl who had a dog called Tillie and lived on a house on a hill that was best for sledding.
After I thought about this, I began to put more emphasis on my actions, thoughts, and views on things. I started question in the people around me. What if we all wore school uniforms? What if we lived in a world where every thing was invisible, and all that showed were your words? Would people choose the same friends?
People have always told me “It’s what on the inside that counts” but the real meaning of that statement never got inside my head until now. When Chana was in the concentration camp, the importance of her thoughts and actions was magnified. I realized that without having to get to that point, I can still look at people through their actions and words, and cherish my own.
Thank you.

Sincerely,
J.N.

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Letter #2 (Winner—Second Runner Up, state level—Oregon)

To author Carl Deuker
Book: Painting the Black
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Mr. Deuker,
I feel that you have written the book, Painting the Black just for me. I believe this because at so many different periods in the book, I was able to relate back to a time where I have felt the same excitement, or the same doubt. This year I have read more books total then I have in my whole life. My total this year is six and counting, from kindergarten until now I had read probably four books. Thanks to authors like you I have finally been able to feel the excitement of a good book.
I am a big sports guy, always playing a sport, and if I’m not playing, then I’m watching. The last two years have been a big switch for me; I went from soccer to football. Last year was my first year I played football, starting at tight end. I felt that I was fairly decent; I enjoyed playing this position as well. Going out for a deep pass or crushing my enemy with a huge clock—I loved it. But deep down inside, I was a quarterback. I could bomb the ball in the tightest spiral and make it look like it was not even spinning. I was a QB. There was only one thing that was keeping me from achieving my goal, and that was my best friend Greg. He was like Josh in the story—he was perfect. If he was going to throw deep, it was going deep and right on the mark every time. If I wanted to be QB next year, I was going to have to work, and work hard; work as hard as Ryan did in the story. He wanted to be the starting catcher on the team and he achieved his dream. So why couldn’t I? I worked all summer long throwing the football constantly. I threw through a tire that hung from a play set in back yard. I wanted to be a QB, so that’s what I was going to be. I told myself that every night.
Now it was finally time, football season; it was finally here, and I was ready. At practice, I worked at QB hard, and let me tell you I was doing a good job. I was living the life I always wanted and it was only my second year. After that practice, I proved to my self and to my coach that I should be the starting quarterback for the Beaverton Metro Junior Beavers.
During the year I had feelings, just as Josh did the first game he got to play. I felt on fire, with everything going my way, a masterpiece at work, dodging tackles, and diving for first downs. It was great. I worked just as hard as Ryan did, and I was successful, too. There was a time when one of my fellow teammates did something against team rules. I did not choose to tell, and I did this for the same reason as Ryan. He was hesitant to tell on Josh in the story. We needed this player, and we may have lost without him. The same for Ryan and Josh; Josh had a shocking incident with Monica in the story. Ryan did not want to tell at first for the same reason as I, but Ryan ended up doing the right thing. I didn’t. It turned out to be not that big of a deal, but to this day, I still think about it.
               Painting the Black is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Let me tell you Mr. Deuker, I will never find a book that matched my life in the same way.

Sincerely,
N.B.

*Important Note*

I do hope you take a moment to visit www.read.gov/letters/ and look at both the contest details and examples of national level winning letters. You will find information about entering (and how the letters will be assessed) and a helpful teaching guide to supplement your own ideas. November is the month when you may begin submitting entries, and each level has it’s own submission deadline.

Since the new school year is several months away (and many miles beyond your current radar), I will post a reminder here on STG and on Twitter (@JeffHicks156) sometime in September/early October.

Some School Related Book Recommendations

The books that follow are three of my favorite recent reads. And I believe they’re the kind of books that, in the hands of student readers, could launch a whole bunch of the type of letters the LAL contest (above) is all about. I could say a lot about each of them, but I won’t. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information or classroom ideas you may be too busy to absorb at this point in the year. I just want to let you know about a few worthwhile books to check out for yourself. But don’t be surprised if I come back to one or more of them in the fall when your teacher engine is fully charged.

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Book: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Grades 5 and up

352 pages

http://alibenjamin.com/site/

Passage—pages 109-110

            The next thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this: They are taking over.

            Did you know that? Not many people do. It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention. People pay attention to other things. They pay attention to videos of cats playing pianos, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend. They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

            But meanwhile. Out there in the sea. Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

            Isn’t that a pretty phrase? Jellyfish blooms, like garden flowers opening up to the sun.

            There are more jellyfish than ever. At least, that’s what some scientists say.

 

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Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Grades 8 and up (If it were a movie—PG-13 rating)

320 pages

http://www.brendankiely.com/all-american-boys/

http://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Jason-Reynolds/403685768

Passage—pages 144-145

             I knew exactly what I was drawing. The only thing I could. I was going to re-create the scene, what had happened to me, what was playing constantly on the news, on the page.

            First the outline. A teenage boy. Hands up. No. Erase. Hands down. No. Hands behind his back. Outline of a figure behind him. Bigger than he is. Holding him around the neck. No. Not that. Fist in the air. No. Not that either. Hands pushing through the teenage boy’s chest. A building behind him. A store. Person in the doorway. Cheering.

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Book: The War that Save my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Grades 4-7

320 pages

http://www.kimberlybrubakerbradley.com/

Passage—pages 183

            I knew I couldn’t really stay. The good things here—not being shut up in the one room, for starters, and then Butter, and my crutches, and being warm even when it was cold outside. Clean clothes. Nightly baths. Three meals a day. That cup of Bovril before bedtime. The ocean seen from the top of the hill—all of these things, they were just temporary. Just until Mam came for us. I didn’t dare get too used to them.

            I tried to think of the good things about home. I remembered Mam bringing home fish-‘n’-chips on Friday nights, crisp and hot and wrapped in newspaper. I remembered that sometimes Mam sang, and laughed, and once even danced Jamie around the table. I remembered how when Jamie was little he spent his days inside with me. I remembered the crack on the ceiling that looked like a man in a pointed hat.

            And even if it felt like Mam hated me, she had to love me, didn’t she? She had to love me, because she was my mam, and Susan was just somebody who got stuck taking care of Jamie and me because of the war.

 

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

We know your school year is in full gear even as it winds down. It won’t be long before we take a short summer break, as well. Before we do, Vicki is going to tell you about Steve Peha’s new book, Be a Better Writer. It’s filled with all sorts of ideas for your classroom—a few to try now and many more for the fall.

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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I have a friend, a retired university English professor, who is my reading role model because of both his reading habits and the books he chooses to read. Every winter, he selects a Dickens novel to read—it’s the perfect season for reading Dickens (and he has read all of them), and while he was teaching, he would “treat” himself at the conclusion of spring term to one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. His recommendations have steered me to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Wilke Collin’s The Moonstone, and Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, to name just a few. My good friend has even inspired me to do something I usually don’t like to do—“binge” read more than one book consecutively by the same author. I haven’t done it quite to his level—e.g. he read the entire John Le Carre novel catalog in order (I think that’s around 23 books). I’m not even sure why I don’t like to do it, but recently broke from my pattern and read four books in a row by YA author Andrew Smith, one after the other before coming up for air: Winger, Stand Off (the sequel to Winger), Grasshopper Jungle, and Stick. And I have three more waiting on the shelf—100 Miles Sideways, the Alex Crow, and Ghost Medicine (Smith’s first novel).

There’s something (actually there’s a lot of somethings) about Andrew Smith’s writing, storytelling, characters, and honesty that just speaks to me, and I figure that if that’s true, then his books will also resonate with a grade 9-12 student audience. I do want to provide a bit of a warning to readers who may be sensitive/nervous about reading or recommending YA novels containing salty language, sexual references, and sexual situations. These books are all coming of age stories focusing on male lead characters, and yes, they contain some strong language and sexual situations. None of this seems gratuitous or included for shock value because Mr. Smith’s characters speak authentic “boy.” The hook for me, as I think it will be for student readers, is that each of Mr. Smith’s books features fully realized characters drawn from real life, facing real problems, and dealing with them using their real teenage brains. Real teen characters are going to use foul language, and they are going to have family issues, friendships, romantic relationships, they’re going to question authority, and make some bad decisions. And because they are teenagers, they’re going to think about sex, talk about sex, and act upon sexual impulses. But they’re also going to surprise the adults in their lives by thinking and doing amazing things for themselves, the people they care about, and even for their world. (Both my teaching and parenting experiences will vouch for that.)

In case I haven’t scared you off, what follows is a brief summary of three of the four Andrew Smith books I read ( I don’t want to overwhelm you or somehow limit the joy you might feel at discovering the rest on your own), some short passages from each to give you a flavor of his writing, and an idea or two about how all or part of the books might be used by grade 9-12 teachers. (Stand-Off is a fully realized, very satisfying sequel to Winger, a continuation of the main character’s coming of age. I thought I would start you off with the first book, and let you go from there.)

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Winger. 2013. Andrew Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

439 pages (Hardback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age novel

Summary: Ryan Dean West is fourteen, excels at school, is kind of scrawny, and the youngest 11th grader at Pine Mountain, a fancy private boarding school in the mountains of Oregon. At Pine Mountain they play rugby, a sport for both behemoths and undersized fast kids like Ryan Dean. He plays winger, hence his less than creative nickname, “Winger.” To begin his junior year, Ryan Dean is placed in Opportunity Hall, a special dormitory for students who have broken one of the many strict rules at Pine Mountain. Ryan Dean was caught stealing/borrowing a teacher’s cell phone and hacking into the account so he could make “undetected, untraceable” calls. (Cell phones are off limits to students.) He’s not a bad kid though he does make several questionable decisions, fueled by self-doubt. He’s often aware they’re bad decisions, yet makes them anyway—“I’m such a loser!” is his frequent, sad mantra.

The story, told by Ryan Dean, is enhanced by the inclusion of his cartoons, where he lampoons teachers, friends, enemies, and himself, along with humorous charts/graphs of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Ryan Dean believes in telling the truth, and let’s readers know that though he swears frequently in his narration, he almost never does it in front of people. He’s got an awful roommate, a rogue’s gallery of teammates, and to top it off, he’s in love with Annie, his best friend, and yearns for her to see him as more than a little kid. To tell much more would be verging on spoiling some wonderful character and story developments. As always, I suggest you read the book yourself before recommending it or using it with students.

Three Short Passages from Winger—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I’ll be honest. If someone asked me am I in love with Annie Altman, I’d have to say I don’t know, because I really don’t know. I have nothing to compare with how I feel about her. But I do know that I feel this kind of a need where she is concerned; I need her to notice me more than she does; I need to think that I make her feel lighter when she sees me. And there’s no way I could ever believe that was possible, because it was just little me, Ryan Dean West, fourteen years old, walking around in the exact same clothes and tie as four hundred other guys at Pine Mountain, every one of us so much the same, except for me, except for that one thing she noticed that she couldn’t get over, that made me so unattractively different from every other eleventh-grade boy in this shithole. (Page 108)
  2. Running through the woods north of their house, it amazed me how green things grew on top of green things that were still green and growing. Trees were covered with ferns and vines and mosses, and everywhere it looked as if nothing had been dry in centuries. And in the dark woods as we ran, I could smell that living-ocean scent of the island, and I heard nothing but the sounds of our feet on the wet ground, our breathing, and the static-spark sizzle of rain dripping through the forest cover. (Page 261)
  3. Okay.

                 Let’s call this an intermission.

                 With a bit of an apology, I guess.

                  You ever hear of Joseph Conrad? He said, “One writes half the book: the other half is up to the reader.”

                 Mr. Wellins might say that I have made you a conscripted audience. That I didn’t give you a choice as to whether or not to believe me, and, believe me, sometimes I can’t believe myself.

            Or something. (Page 410)

In Your Classroom

This (and the sequel, Stand-Off, as well) may not be a book you want to use with your entire class, but it may be just the thing to recommend to a student or select group of students for independent or special project reading. This is where your relationships with your students—knowledge of their interests, reading habits/patterns, etc.—really come into play. I always kept a stand of books on my desk for students to borrow and for me to recommend. It never seemed to matter what books I had, if they were on my desk, students would ask to see them, like I had a lock on all the “cool” books. I hate to label books as “boy” or “girl” books, but as I said, Andrew Smith speaks fluent boy, especially to boys who have spent some time on the edges of school/social circles. Here are a couple ways to use selected parts of the book.

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any that speak to you from your reading of the book) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used as a model for students to reflect about something/someone they care about, or as a model for self-description. The passage blends long sentences with shorter ones and even violates some “rules”—beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc.)—as a stylistic choice to create interesting sentence fluency.
  2. Using Cartoons/Graphs/Charts to Explain a Key Life Moment—Ryan Dean punctuates moments in his story with the inclusion of a cartoon drawing—like the one of the door to his dorm room on page 13—or a graph/chart to visualize or quantify something he is feeling—page 55’s pie chart of “Ryan Dean West Brain Capacity Allocation,” page 117’s bar graph of “Things Ryan Dean West is Afraid Of.”
  3. The Game of Rugby—Ryan Dean plays rugby and loves it—the physicality, the camaraderie, the traditions, and the fact that it’s a sport where skinny, fast, tenacious guys like him play an important role. (One of my roommates in college played rugby, so I have watched countless games and understand at least the basics of the game. I even traveled in a van with his rugby team from Eugene, Oregon to Carmel, California for a huge rugby tournament. It’s a game that attracts really “interesting” characters of all shapes and sizes.) I would use some of the rugby talk (there are passages about rugby practice, games, and rituals) in this book as a springboard to researching and explaining the culture and rules of rugby (or any sport that interests your students). 

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Stick. 2011. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

292 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age (Sexual identity, physical/verbal abuse)

 Summary:

This story is told through the eyes and ear (just one) of thirteen-year-old Stark McClellan. He’s called Stick because that’s the way he’s built—tall for his age and rail thin. He was born with only one ear and has been told by his abusive parents, in many ways, that he is ugly and deformed. Stick and his sixteen-year-old brother Bosten are survivors. Their close relationship keeps them going as each suffers beatings, confinement, and verbal abuse. When their parents find out that Bosten is gay, he leaves home after suffering a terrible beat down at the hands of his father. Stick summons the courage to go after him, to keep their all important connection alive, and finds his way to his Aunt Dahlia’s in California, a safe haven where he figures Bosten will end up.

Three Short Passages from Stick—Just for the Flavor:

  1. When you see me at first, I look like just about another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you’re probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even—green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy’s ear, but it’s pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter’s clay. No hole—a canal, they call it.

            Nothing gets into my head that way.

            I can’t easily hide it because my dad won’t let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there’s nothing                        wrong with            me.

                                                                                                                        But I’m ugly.

            You see what I’m doing, don’t you? I                        am                         making

                                                                                                                        you hear me.

            The way                         I                         hear the                                     world.

            But I won’t do it too much, I                                                promise. (Page 6)

 

  1. “Let me see. Okay?”

            I pulled the sheet down, away from Bosten’s shoulders, so I could see his back.

            We’d both been beaten plenty of times before. This was one of the bad ones. It happened every so often.

            “It’s pretty bad,” I said.

            From the middle of his shoulder blades, past his butt and onto his thighs, Bosten was streaked with purple welts. Some of the marks that were raised had actually bled; all of them, angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.

            I whispered, lower, “Turn flat. I’m going to put something on it to make you feel better.”

            Bosten rolled flat onto his belly. He rested his chin on his forearm and stared at the wall at the head of the bed.

            “I hate them.” (Page 62)

 

  1. Sometimes I wondered why she treated us that way, why she accepted us the way she did. It wasn’t a sterile kind of tolerance, like kids could expect from PE coaches and nurses who gave you tetanus shots; it was something else.

            One time she told me about how her husband died when she was only twenty-five years old. I said he must have been a real nice man, but I couldn’t look at her when I said that. It made me sadder that just about anything. It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.

            She was a wondrous person, I thought. (Page 132)

In Your Classroom

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any other that catch your eye and ear as you read) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used with students as a model for self-description—“When you see me at first…” The writing could be done as poetry, where student writers consider how they see themselves compared to how others see them. The passage explains how Stick, because of his missing ear, hears/processes when people speak to him. He wants us to experience the slower, delayed pace of incoming speech. Your student writers could experiment in their own poetry with spacing gaps, line breaks, and formatting as a way to control the way their readers encounter their messages.
  2. Figurative Language—Similes—In passage #2, Bosten has been severely beaten by his father, again. Andrew Smith, through Stick, describes this moment between brothers quietly, almost casually. It may be shocking to us, but to them, it’s routine. As a reader, this makes the moment seem even more horrifying. He punctuates it with a pair of vivid, related similes, coming one after the other, “…angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.” Students could experiment with this idea of simile stacking.
  3. Discussion/Opinion Writing— I think that the second to last line in passage #3 would open the door to an interesting class discussion followed up with a reflective piece of writing: “It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.” It’s a variation on the classic Nature v. Nurture conundrum. What forces, experiences, circumstances, choices, lead people to behave the way they do? Is it possible for people to be all good or all bad? Is it possible for people to change?

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Grasshopper Jungle. 2014. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

388 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age/sexual identity/science fiction/giant grasshopper apocalypse novel (This is a difficult one to pin down.)

Awards: 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal Longlist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award

Summary:

I’m not sure if I can actually summarize this book. It may be the coolest, strangest, funniest, creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not quite sure how to explain the wild storyline. Remember all of the things I said earlier about salty language and sexual references/situations? They really apply to this book. Even though the story takes some bizarre turns, the main characters seemed real—real teenagers immersed in a surreal world. Austin Szerba, his best friend Robby, and his girlfriend Shann unwittingly loose upon the world a horde of savage, giant praying mantises interested only in eating and multiplying. This insect apocalypse begins in a small town in Iowa but has links to Austin’s Polish ancestors and a series of strange scientific discoveries, past and present. And, of course, it’s up to these three to save both their world and the world.

Based on what I’ve just said (or any of the book jacket blurbs), you may decide not to read it or even look at it. But I can think of several reluctant reader-teenage boy-students—past and present—who would eat this book up and ask for more. One student in particular comes to mind. He is a fanatic follower of The Walking Dead graphic novel series and television show, and has struggled with all sorts of issues. This student would find a connection, both as a reader and as a young man, with Austin, Robby, and Shann. You might not want to use this with an entire class, but having books like this one in your pocket, so to speak (or on your desk), empowers you to perhaps keep a few students reading.

Two Short Passages from Grasshopper Jungle—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

            We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

            But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

            This is my history.

            There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

            Just like it’s always been. (Page nine—opening lines of the book)

 

  1. The Unstoppable Soldier looked confused, if such an expression could manifest itself on the face of a six-foot-tall beast that looked like a praying mantic. Hungry Jack’s left arm fell off first. The right arm disjointed and plunked down onto the ground seconds later. The tooth-spiked claw arms rattled around on the pavement of the parking lot, spastically opening and closing, opening and closing, as they scraped along the ground with no coherent mission.

            Where the claw arms had detached from Hungry Jack’s thorax, a gooey stream of slick yellow fluid burbled like twin pots of boiling unstoppable cornmeal mush. Then Hungry Jack’s chin lowered and his head rolled away from his body, landing on the ground between the two flailing arms.

            What was left of Hungry Jack scampered away on four gangly legs, which soon became three, then two, and the entire Unstoppable Soldier collapsed in puddles of oily mush.

            Robby Brees saved my life.

            Being a historian naturally has its dangers, but this is my job. I tell the truth. (Pages 354-355)

 

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Because this is the book’s opening, passage #1 could be used as a model for students to begin a written reflection/story from their history—a brief scene from their lives so far or moment where they acted stupidly and didn’t actually learn from it. You could even use the last line of Passage #2 to open their reflection, emphasizing that what follows will be “the truth.” The second passage is a clear example of the power that strong verbs have to give movement/motion to scenes describing action.

More About Andrew SmithVisit www.authorandrewsmith.com for all sorts of information about Mr. Smith and his books.

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 three picks for this post:

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters by Sean B. Carroll

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 Letters About Literature contest for grade 4-12 students, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, has come and gone. I was only recently reminded of this wonderful writing contest that I used to invite my students to enter. Shortly after the winners (state and national levels) are announced in April, I want to put in a plug for both the contest and the type of writing it inspires. And, of course, Vicki and I have been reading all sorts of wonderful books we’ll want to share with you to inspire you and your student writers.

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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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.

 

snakes, alligators, and broken hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. 2015. Written and illustrated by Sneed B. Collard III. Design by Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli. With animal artwork by Tessa K. Collard. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing. 174 pages including Epilogue and Author’s Note.

Genre: Memoir

Ages: Upper elementary and middle school

 Fire Birds! cover

Summary

Sneed portraitAuthor and biologist Sneed Collard is known primarily for children’s nonfiction books that resound with voice and feed our imaginations with curious, often startling details about the world’s quirkiest inhabitants. Sea Snakes, Creepy Creatures, Alien Invaders, Animal Dads, A Whale Biologist at Work, The Deep Sea Floor, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, and Fire Birds are just a handful of the dozens of titles familiar to his fans. More recently, Sneed has ventured into fiction as well, with books like Dog Sense, Double Eagle, and Hangman’s Gold.

IMG_5884 (2)Just weeks ago, Collard released his memoir, an account of his adventures growing up as the son of a biologist. In this newest book, he shows how his experiences—from joyful to dark—influenced his desire to become a scientist himself and a writer as well. It’s a lively, often humorous account that tracks Sneed’s life from preschool days as a young snake and turtle collector through that last fateful summer before high school—which turned out to be a time of life changing decisions.

The art of memoir

In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr reminds us that memoir is a demanding genre because in writing about your own life, “you’re making an experience for a reader.” She adds, “You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). Calling up early memories can be challenging, even painful. The things readers want to hear about are often the very moments writers most want to bury. Sneed Collard’s memoir offers up a rich collection of memories, some hilarious, and some touching or troubling. Through tales of friendship, divorce, alcoholism, love, loss, and a passionate curiosity for nature and all life, he does indeed, in the words of Mary Karr, create an experience for us. For Collard’s many fans, this long-awaited book will be like having a good conversation with an old friend.

 

In the Classroom

  1.  Reading. The book comprises 31 short chapters and an epilogue, making it ideal for sharing aloud in short increments. Or, especially if you have students who are familiar with and fans of Sneed Collard’s numerous other books (Note the book list in the very front of the memoir), Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts makes an ideal subject for review and discussion in a small book group.
  2. Memoir—a special genre. What do your students know about the genre called memoir? You might open your discussion of Sneed’s book by asking how they define memoir (they might even write a short definition and you can read these aloud later). Synonyms include record, journal, dossier, log, history, and biography. The dictionary defines memoir as a personal account of historical events—or events in which one took part. According to writers like Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir, 2015), however, this definition doesn’t go nearly far enough. As Karr has told us, a good memoir creates an experience for the reader—and it does so through the author’s careful selection of events he or she is willing to share. Given this expanded definition, what challenges might a memoir writer face?
  3. Personal Connection. What other memoirs have your students read? Make a list. You may wish to read others in conjunction with Sneed Collard’s book—or afterward, as an extension of your study of memoir. Possibilities include the following (Add to this list to give your students a valuable resource):

 

  • The Secret Lives of Us Kids: A Childhood Memoir 1941-1945 by Bonnie Buckley Maldonado (2014)
  • I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure (2009)
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle with Clare B. Dunkle (2015)
  • My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel (2006
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, ed. Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography by Jerry Spinelli (1998)
  • Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry (2000)
  • When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (by renowned authors), ed. Louise Ehrlich (2012)

 

  1. It’s all about choices. “That night I tossed and turned in my bed, alternately steeling myself for the challenge ahead and trying to think of legitimate reasons for backing out.” This line comes from page 94 of Chapter 18: The Tower. Sneed is about ten years old, in Wakulla Springs, Florida—and trying to psych himself up for a jump off “the tower,” a legendary diving structure with platforms twelve, twenty, and a “soul-shaking” thirty-three feet above the water. If he goes off the top platform, he will avoid humiliation—but at what cost? Talk about the tower first. What does it symbolize for the young people of Wakulla? Then ask your students whether they have ever made a decision to do something that was “soul-shaking” scary. Most people face such a decision, sometimes many times, within their lives. Ask those who are willing to share some of these experiences, and join them by sharing one or two of your own. Tip: Decisions don’t need to involve life or death to be scary. For some students, a decision to speak up in class can be terrifying. Not all vivid memories are scary ones, either. They can also be wildly hilarious, stunningly surprising—or wondrously joyful. They can even be moments that seem insignificant in every way except the way they stick in your brain for months or years: like the first taste of a favorite food. Talk about what makes a moment memorable and about how writers choose which moments to include in creating the experience of memoir. In addition to the leap off the Wakulla Springs tower, what other particularly significant moments does Sneed Collard include in his memoir? Make a class list. (Note: If students have difficulty recalling, a review of the Table of Contents can be helpful.)

 

  1. Scope. It might seem logical that a memoir would run from the author’s birth to the “present”—whenever that may be. In fact, though, authors can define the span of time they wish to cover. Most do not begin with birth. Why would that be? Ask your students to recall their very earliest memories. How old were they at the time of those recollections? Sneed claims to recall events from as early as the age of two (see page 18). That’s very young indeed! Can any of your students go back that far? Can you? Notice also that this memoir ends during the final summer before Collard enters high school. He might have chosen to continue right up to 2016 and include his years of work as a researcher and writer. Why do your students think he chose instead to end the book when he did? Might this be a wise choice from a writer’s point of view? Could a writer decide to cover an even shorter span of time—say five years, or even less? What’s the shortest span of time a good memoir could cover? An hour? A day? A month? A year? Or would it need to be longer?

 

  1. Building a life map. Have your students ever created a life map? This activity is a highly useful precursor to writing a personal memoir. A life map is a sketched trail or pathway with milestones to mark important events or memories in a person’s life. The map can take the form of a simple geometric shape such as a circle or triangle, or it may wander randomly or in a serpentine fashion, or spiral out from a starting point. The number of milestones is determined by how many events the author wants to share. Those events might include things like making or losing a friend, graduating from a class or school, entering a competition, getting a pet, moving, leaving home—or any of a thousand other things. Anything the author deems significant can make the cut. The photo seen here shows a life map my friend Sally sketched some years ago. She chose to begin with her marriage, and included the birth of her son, a move to a new home, her divorce, various travels, her return to teaching, and her son Eric’s graduations (yes, two of them). She concluded with her decision to work with me training teachers—lucky break for me! Ask your students to sketch life maps of their own, including whatever events they like. If you decide to use these as a precursor to writing memoirs, give students a chance to meet in small groups to discuss their life maps and raise questions. This discussion helps writers recall details they may have left out.

 

  1. Leads. Ask your students if they can think of a clichéd (trite, that is) way to begin a biography or memoir. Too often, writers (including some students!) open any biographical piece (including a memoir) with the standard beginning: I (or name the subject) was born in (name the year) in (name the town). Why does this overused beginning put us to sleep almost instantly? Notice that author Sneed Collard found a completely different way to begin. Re-read the lead from Chapter 1. How would you describe it? What strategies does this author use to get us involved in his story? How long does it take him to tell us when he was born? (Hint: Chapter 2, page 17.) For all of Chapter 1, we are guessing at Sneed’s age during the whale episode. But—there could be some hints to help us. What are they? Why might a writer want to keep readers guessing about something for just a bit before sharing factual information?

 

  1. And more leads . . . Read a few more leads from various chapters in Sneed’s memoir. What do they have in common? How do they create interest or keep readers moving through the text?

 

  1. What about endings? Leads pull us into the writing, but endings can be just as important—sometimes even more so. Read some of the conclusions to chapters in Collard’s memoir. You’ll see that while they all have the sound and feel of an ending, they do not all serve the same function. What are some of the roles that endings play in this book? (Hint: Endings like the one to Chapter 12, page 60, seem to point ahead to new beginnings. The ending to Chapter 21, page 112, wraps up the event we’ve just been reading about—the jump off the dreaded tower.) We often think of transitions as single words or phrases: after a while, next, on the other hand, nevertheless, in addition, and so on. Do leads and conclusions also serve as transitions? Why is this so important in a longer piece?

 

  1. The beauty of the chapter. What is the longest piece your students—or you—have ever written? What are some of the structural devices writers use to break up a particularly long piece of text? (Hint: Your students might mention, for example, paragraphs, subheads, white space, illustrations—and of course, chapters.) What design and structural elements does author Sneed Collard use to divide his memoir into sections? Ask your students to imagine the same book without any paragraphs or chapters with titles. How inviting would such a book be? Would we read it? Then ask this question: How long should a book be before the writer decides to break it into chapters? If your students are writing pieces of, say, five pages or more, ask them to try dividing their writing into chapters (even if they only wind up with two or three). Discuss how they decide how many chapters to include and where the breaks should be. Does formatting by chapters make organization easier for the writer as well as the reader? How so?

 

  1. Chapter titles. Often authors simply identify chapters by number: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on. Sneed Collard obviously gave a great deal of thought to his chapter titles for this book. What does an author add by titling chapters? Which titles from Collard’s book are particularly appealing to your students as readers (Read the list aloud and ask for votes)? What makes some particularly inviting?

 

  1. Graphics. Most of this book is illustrated with photographs. Is this particularly appropriate for a memoir? Why? Notice that Sneed Collard has also chosen to add a few sketches of alligators and snakes drawn by his daughter Tessa. What do these drawings add to the flavor of the book?

 

  1. Voice. At one point, the author writes about his prowess in math (Chapter 16, page 80). He also adds, “I was no slouch in other subjects, either, though I scrawled the ugliest handwriting since Neanderthals had penned pictographs on cave walls thirty thousand years before.” What sort of voice is that? List some words to describe it. Then talk about the overall tone of the book. Is it warm, academic, formal, aloof, chatty, conversational, haughty, modest, or–? In describing it, ask students to identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to that voice? Is it the author’s choice of words, use of dialogue, the subject matter—or something else? How important is voice in memoir? Is it the voice that keeps us reading?

 

  1. Is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? As noted earlier, author Mary Karr cautions us that as a writer of memoir, “you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). But—is it possible for a writer recalling life events to ever tell the whole truth and nothing but? Before answering, read Sneed Collard’s “Author’s Note” on page 171. He says, among other things, that “No one can tell his or her own story with complete objectivity. In telling our stories, we layer in our distorted memories, false perceptions, and viewpoints and prejudices.” How do we reconcile this personal perspective with Mary Karr’s demand for honesty? Have students discuss and/or write about this.

 

  1. Honesty. Unquestionably, honesty is one of the hallmarks of good memoir. Yet it’s difficult, even painful, to be honest about experiences that hurt us or revealed what we perceive as our weaknesses. In Chapter 22 (page 116), Collard writes about the humiliation of Junior High (Middle School) PE, in which students were ranked by proficiency in a very obvious way—through the color of their gym shorts. The least accomplished athletes donned the dreaded dark blue—and hated every wretched blue thread. As their skills grew, they could move up to red, green, silver, gold, and at the very pinnacle, the envied blue silk “that incited an almost godlike worship among all others.” Collard confesses, “Guess which color I wore? Stinking, humiliating blue.” Why is it we appreciate a writer’s honesty so much at moments like this? We laugh, yes, but what else do we feel? Ask your students to identify other moments from this memoir require true writing courage. Modeling opportunity: If you’re brave enough, you might write about an embarrassing or difficult moment of your own as a way of modeling this kind of honesty. Remind students that while honesty can be difficult, it adds immeasurably to the appeal of any good memoir. Does it influence voice as well? How? (Note: It is important for students to understand that no matter how much we value honesty in writers, they have the right to privacy. No author should be asked or expected to write about events or circumstances that are simply too uncomfortable to recall or relate. You can use your modeling opportunity to clarify this by talking about how you chose what to write about—and what to keep personal.)

 

  1. Epilogue. Read the author’s epilogue (page 167) aloud. What is the meaning of the word epilogue? What does an epilogue add that a final chapter from a book cannot? Your students may never have written an epilogue. It takes perspective, for one thing—and that can be difficult for a very young person to achieve readily. But you might try this: Ask students who write memoirs to set them aside for a period of time, even until towards the end of the school year. Then ask them to add an epilogue to the memoir they wrote weeks or months before. Talk about what new perspective can add to a piece of writing.

 

  1. Research. Wait a minute. Research for a memoir? Doesn’t it all just flow out of your head? Before answering that question, take time to read the author’s note of “Thanks” on pages 173-174. What do Sneed’s final remarks reveal about his own personal research for the book? What do they tell us about the nature of research itself? It’s not all about visiting the library! Note: If your students are writing their own memoirs, you might suggest that they investigate any family photo collections that might be available—and consider interviewing some of the people (parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors) who have been part of their lives. They may also wish to consider incorporating photos into the final drafts of their memoirs.

 

  1. The Journey. Note the full title once again: Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. In what sense is a memoir a journey? Think back to your definitions of memoir (point 2), what your students decided about the scope of a good memoir (point 5), and your life maps, if you made them (point 6). Then think about the concept of journey. What do we mean by this word? What happens to a person on a journey? Ask your students to identify passages that help define who Sneed Collard is at the beginning of his memoir—and who he becomes by the end. What forces shape this transition? Where did his journeys take him?

animal dadsleaving homepocket babiesThe Deep Sea Floordouble eaglelizards2Sneed 4

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki shares some thoughts on the use of rubrics—or writing guides, as we prefer to call them.

Then we’re tossing the ball into Jeff’s court for comments on some good books and writing ideas you will want in your life.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We appreciate your comments and your questions. Come often, and tell friends about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process, and literature, call Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.