Category: Standards

Getting to the Core of the Common Core


Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

Maybe you’re one of those people to whom the Common Core Standards for writing seem just second nature, almost intuitive. You’re not worried about upcoming assessments. Old ground, right? If that’s the case, this post is not meant for you.

If, on the other hand, you read through the writing standards and feel yourself glazing over, thinking, How on earth will I remember all this? Where do I begin? then this IS your post. Welcome!


A Caveat

We won’t try to touch on everything in the world of writing (which may come as a relief). Not even the standards themselves can begin to do that because writing is too big—by far. But climbing any mountain goes better if you can get a good toehold, and that’s what this post is meant to give you.


Two Things to Notice

If you haven’t done so, read through the writing standards (, focusing on your own grade level. As you read, you’ll notice two things:

  1. The standards echo the 6 traits at almost every turn. Have you been teaching the 6 traits in your writing classroom? If so, you’ve already been teaching much of what is covered in the standards, especially with regard to the following traits: ideas (think CCSS detail and support), organization (think lead or introduction, transitions and coherence, ending or conclusion), word choice (think phrasing but also use of proper terminology), and conventions/presentation (think editing and publishing). And here’s the frosting on the cake: The standards also emphasize revision. Big time. In fact, we know that some portions of the upcoming writing assessments will require students to revise passages by rewording sentences, taking out unneeded sentences or words, rephrasing, and so on. This is incredibly good news for 6-trait fans because the 6 traits are all about revision. Every trait opens a writer’s eyes to new revision strategies: writing a new lead, adding detail, improving transitions, finding a better way to say it, being more concise, and so on. So, 6-trait teachers, you’re already a step up. You may also notice that . . .
  2. There’s a lot of redundancy in the CCSS as you move genre to genre. Initially, this may seem confusing, but it makes perfect sense once we remind ourselves that certain features—such as word choice—are important regardless of genre or purpose. Whether one is writing a story about a mouse who falls in love with a princess, a textbook on economics, or an argument supporting GMO labeling, words matter. The kind of language a writer uses shifts, of course, to suit the audience and purpose. As a teacher, you can use this overlap to your advantage. You can teach specific features of writing, helping students understand how those features shape themselves to meet the needs of audience, genre, and purpose—and you don’t need to teach them three times. You just need to show how they shift to suit the situation.


The Top 8

So then—just what are these overlapping features that are vital in narrative, informational writing, and argument? Here’s my version of the top 8:

  • Purpose & Audience
  • Introduction/Lead
  • Detail
  • Structure
  • Transitions (also called connections or connecting words)
  • Wording
  • Conclusions
  • Conventions

If your students can demonstrate strength across these 8 features, they can handle almost any writing assessment anyone can throw at them, whether the scoring criteria are based on the 6 traits, the Common Core Standards for writing, a combination of the two, or any criteria developed by a college, business, or other institution. That sounds like a mighty claim, but it isn’t. It’s just common sense. That’s because the 8 things listed here are just features of good writing, no more, no less. That’s what the standards are all about—good writing. It’s what the 6 traits are about, too. Let’s consider these features one by one. I’ll deal with 1 through 4 in this post—and 5 through 8 in the next.

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

One of my favorite writers, Garrison Keillor, wrote an article a few years ago on the art of letter writing. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. At one point, he tells us,

The toughest letter to crank out is one that’s meant to impress, as we all know from writing job applications; if it’s hard work to slip off a letter to a friend, maybe you’re trying too hard to be terrific. A letter is only a report to someone who already likes you for reasons other than your brilliance. Take it easy. (“How to Write a Letter” in We Are Still Married, 1989, 139).

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

  1. Small children
  2. Law students
  3. Publishers
  4. People like you and me—especially shy people

This is an easy question, but a slightly tougher one is, How do we know? We know because good writing is always filled with clues about the writer’s intent. Phrases like “meant to impress” and “reasons other than your brilliance” tell us the audience is adult. At the same time, the casualness of “toughest letter to crank out” suggests an easy armchair chat, not a formal lecture or business letter. And why would a letter to a friend be “hard work”? Well, perhaps the writer is shy. I read this and say to myself, Me. You’re talking to me.

Good writers have a sense of audience and purpose. This isn’t the easiest thing to teach, partly because in school audience and purpose are defined for us: I’m writing to my teacher and my purpose is to fulfill the assignment. Pretending to write to a broader audience for an imagined purpose feels forced and artificial—but it’s important to widen our students’ horizons. One very real way to do just that is to read excerpts (about the length of the Keillor one) to students and to ask them, “Who’s the audience for this?” And also, “What’s the writer’s purpose?” At this point, students may well ask . . .


What kinds of purposes are there?

If you’ve never thought about this question before, it helps to have some hints. Begin with the fact that the CCSS for writing are divided into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. Admittedly, there are many forms within each genre. Narrative, for example, could include travel literature, novels, picture books, journals, news stories, biographies, film scripts—and so forth. And each of these fulfills a slightly different purpose. In the spirit of this post, however, let’s keep things simple. Here are some suggested purposes that fit within each of the primary genres (you can probably add to my lists—and you should):

Narrative writing is meant to tell a story, explain what happened, share an experience, make a point (or points) about life, portray the human condition, define a character or slice of history, show how a problem was resolved, unveil a mystery, or entertain us.

Informational writing is meant to explain, teach, reveal findings, explore a topic, answer questions, offer assistance, provide key details, enlighten us, encourage further research, summarize discoveries or data, or help us understand the world.

Argument is meant to persuade us, help us think through multiple sides of an issue, urge action, encourage a new or modified perspective, search for truth, explain a particular point of view, compare positions, alert us to potential consequences, or guide us to a sound decision.

These genres are not mutually exclusive, though we sometimes teach them as if they were. Narrative, for example, can be educational. The humblest of mystery novels often teaches us more than we realize about police procedure or courtroom protocol. Seabiscuit is essentially a story about one of history’s most incredible race horses. But no one can read Seabiscuit without learning about life in the 1930s or the incredible hazards of being a jockey. Similarly, both informational writing and argument can be highly entertaining (Keillor’s expository piece on letter writing is a case in point), and both can and often do include narrative examples. Indeed, most good writing is a blend of multiple genres.

Just the same, helping students understand the central purposes behind these three primary genres gives them a vital perspective on both their own writing—and on the reading they do. You can teach this by sharing examples aloud or in writing. Take your examples from a wide range of genres: newspapers, cookbooks, travel brochures, novels, picture books, textbooks, encyclopedias, podcasts, wikis, and more. Here are just a handful to give you an idea—note that I have not included the source with the sample. That would make things too easy. (I will tell you later.) As you read each one, ask yourself, What is the author’s purpose? Is this narrative, informational writing, or argument? And, Who is the author’s intended audience?

Example 1

Reading [Pennsylvania] began to go through a precipitous decline in the 1970s, which began with the collapse of the railroad. In the mid-‘80s, several key factors in manufacturing began to falter. In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the wake of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the steel and textile industries began to significantly erode and jobs were sent overseas.

Example 2

It is a way of living that infuses you with health and energy, so you can feel great, look your best and do everything you’ve always wanted to do. It’s a way of eating that treats meals as celebrations, that encourages you to indulge in the healthy pleasures of delicious, super-flavorful foods. It’s a way to lose weight quickly and permanently while, perhaps for the first time in your life, you will truly cherish your meals.

Example 3

The funny way I talk is not so much like fat pigs in cartoons as I just get stuck on a sound and try to push the word out. Sometimes it comes out after a little pushing but other times I turn red in the face and lose my breath and get dizzy circles going around in my head.

Did you have a definite—and different—impression for each one? That’s how you want your students to feel. After you discuss samples with them, reveal the sources so they can compare their thinking to each author’s actual intent.

Example 1 is aimed at an adult audience: play goers, in particular. It comes from an interview with the playwright Lynn Nottage in Prologue, a magazine published by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The purpose of the interview was to help set the background for Nottage’s play “Sweat,” a story that portrays the decline of American manufacturing, and its impact on American citizens. This excerpt is largely informational (though an underlying purpose is also to persuade people to buy a ticket!).

Example 2 is from The New Sonoma Diet by Dr. Connie Guttersen (2010, 2). This is certainly aimed at adults, particularly those who wish to lose weight. As a fan of the book, I can tell you it’s highly entertaining—but clearly this piece is part of an argument, one that runs the whole course of the book: This diet works. How do we recognize this as persuasive writing, though? Again, look for the clues. First, it makes claims—you’ll look and feel great. You’ll enjoy food more than ever. But note the language—words like infuses, celebrations, indulge, pleasures, super-flavorful, cherish. These are emotional, feel-good words. They’re meant to make you feel that this way of eating is enjoyable—heck, it’s like being at a party! Did they work? Regardless, the real question is, Would your students recognize this as persuasive writing?

Example 3 is from the very moving young adult novel Paperboy by Vince Vawter (2013, 1). The hero of this story is eleven, so we might imagine the book aimed at students about eight to twelve, though it holds much appeal even for adults. And although it is primarily a narrative, we do learn (beginning with this early passage) a great deal about coping with stuttering. Again, the question is, How do we know this is narrative writing—versus, say, a passage from a medical book? It’s personal, intimate, revealing. Instead of data and medical terminology, we have expressions like “fat pigs in cartoons” and “stuck on a sound.”

Examples like these should sound very different to your students, and evoke very different responses. Share one or two each day and talk about how you know the purpose—and the audience. What are the clues? Is it the tone? Wording? Content? As your students write, ask them to think about purpose and audience. How do they shape or modify things like language, content, or voice to suit the audience—and the purpose for writing?

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

Of all the things we write, in all the forms we write, nothing is more important than a strong lead. As the name suggests, a lead pulls us into a piece of writing. But it does so much more. It lays the groundwork for what will come, sometimes giving us background, sometimes raising questions we cannot wait to have answered: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake” (from Holes by Louis Sachar, 2000). No lake? Why on earth not?

Leads can be ominous. They can instill a sense of dread: “My eyes were closed in prayer when the trucks pulled up. I heard them before I saw them” (from Running for My Life by Lopez Lamong, 2012, 1).

It’s said that E. B. White wrote several leads before crafting the world renowned masterpiece that would rival Hitchcock for suspense: “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother, as they were setting the table for breakfast” (Charlotte’s Web, 1952).

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

Leads can also create a sense of enchantment—like this one that provides the setting for an informational text on tree kangaroos:

It feels like we’ve walked into a living fairy tale. Our heads are literally in the clouds. Though we’re just a few degrees south of the equator, we are bathed in cool mist. We’re 10,000 feet up in the mountains. Here the trees are cloaked in clouds. The ground is carpeted with thick green moss. In the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea, ferns grow into trees—trees like those the dinosaurs knew. Moss and ferns, vines and orchids, hang from branches like the beards of wise old wizards. (Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery, 2006, 7).

Reading this, I feel my heart rate slow. It’s not just about setting, I realize. It’s about mood.

A good narrative lead may give us a hint about the plot—like this one from Edgar Allan Poe: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (from “The Cask of Amontillado”). We can’t shake the sense of dread Poe instills with words like thousand injuries, borne, ventured upon insult, vowed revenge. This is not going to end well. And we can’t turn the pages fast enough.

An informational lead tells us just enough about the topic to make us want more—and may also suggest a theme that will give the whole piece coherence: “Over the years, I learned that rats and humans have much in common” (from Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin, 2006, 7). The notion of a connection between rats and humans is intriguing and repulsive at the same time. Either way, it gives me a kind of hook on which to hang all the other details Marrin will share in this book.

An argumentative lead sets up an issue—and if it’s done well, it can get us intellectually and emotionally hooked: “Most stories about the destruction of a planet involve a villain with an evil plot. But this is the story of how the earth could be destroyed by well-meaning people who fail to solve a problem simply because their calculations are wrong” (from World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, 2011, xi).

World without Fish

It’s easy to get the idea that good leads are one-line zingers. They can be. But some leads (like that by Sy Montgomery) can run several sentences. They can even run several paragraphs—or more. Which brings me to an important point. Teach your students to develop an ear for leads by asking, “Where do you hear (or feel) the lead end?” The discussions generated by this question are fascinating. And to illustrate, let me share the next few sentences of Kurlansky’s lead—which is, I think, one of the best in the world of persuasive writing:

Most of the fish we commonly eat, most of the fish we know, could be gone in the next fifty years. This includes salmon, tuna, cod, swordfish, and anchovies. If this happens, many other fish that depend on these fish will also be in trouble. So will seabirds that eat fish, such as seagulls and cormorants. So will mammals that eat fish, such as whales, porpoises, and seals. And insects that depend on seabirds, such as beetles and lizards. Slowly—or maybe not so slowly—in less time than the several billion years it took to create it—life on planet Earth could completely unravel. (Kurlansky, xi)

This is, in its own way, as chilling as anything out of Poe. And surely it compels us to at least hear the man out.

Teaching Leads

Here are five things you can do to teach your students to write effective leads:

  1. Model. Choose a topic and in front of your students, write several leads you might use to begin. Don’t worry about making a Pulitzer worthy effort. Just write what comes to you. Let it flow. Draft at least three possibilities (any of which can be revised later). Then, ask students to pick their favorite and tell you why.
  2. Have students write multiple leads. Take a tip from E. B. White, and ask students to write more than one lead for a given piece and to share them in small groups, asking peers for their responses. Discuss the process. What did everyone learn from this? Is the final lead usually the best one?
  3. Read favorites aloud. Collect leads and share them aloud with students. Be sure to pull leads from multiple genres—not just mystery novels or picture books (though they’re often my favorites, too). Post these so that students can re-read them and think about them.
  4. Ask students to do the searching. Have students track down their own favorites by browsing through literature—as well as newspapers, periodicals, business writing, or the web.
  5. Revise. Find a lead you don’t like so much (or make one up—e.g., Grizzly bears are among the largest land animals . . . In this paper, I will explain why eating organic food is so important . . . ) and ask students to revise it, working in pairs. Post the top three revisions.

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

Teachers have a long-standing tradition of writing “Tell me more!” in the margins of their students’ work. Unfortunately, students often do not have the slightest idea what this means. “I told you everything already!” is a typical response. What do we teachers want, anyhow? Detail! That’s what! So—what is that? It’s the difference between “Camels are amazing!” and this:

It can drink salt water, or go for seven months without drinking at all. Then it can drink up to one quarter of its 1,200-pound weight at a time—twenty-seven gallons. (That would be like you drinking fifty-six cartons of milk!) It can carry 100 pounds of cargo up to thirty miles a day. It can swim, it can wrestle, and it can outrun a horse. (Sy Montgomery in Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, 2009, 45)

Detail takes many forms—facts, anecdotes, description, quotations, explanations, and more. In narrative writing, sensory detail (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, tastes) may be used to enhance a setting, as in this passage (the original lead, by the way) from Charlotte’s Web:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows . . . It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. (E. B. White, 1952, 13)

I cannot read this without wishing myself right there in the barn. That’s good description.

Harris and Me

In his hilarious autobiography Harris and Me, Gary Paulsen uses sensory detail to introduce us to a most distinctive character—Louie, the hired hand on a farm where Gary will spend the summer. Though this passage is more visual than White’s, it too evokes a potpourri of smells:

At the end of the table sat an old man in a wool coat—though it was summer and hot in the kitchen from the wood stove on which the pancakes were cooking—a man so incredibly dirty that it was hard to find a patch of skin on his face or neck not covered with soil or grease. He wore a matted beard—stuck with bits of dirt and sawdust and what looked like (and I found later to be) dried manure and dribbled spit and tobacco juice. All this around two piercingly blue gun-barrel eyes and a toothless mouth. . . . . Louie. (1993, 14-15)

Students sometimes think that “sensory detail” means including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings, a veritable carnival of impressions. This approach is overwhelming. Sensory detail works best when writers focus on one or two senses at a time. We don’t need to breathe in the scent of the pickles and hot dogs as we taste the sweetness of the lemonade while basking in the warmth of the sun and feeling the roughness of the picnic table as we listen to the distant rock music and gleeful shouts of children all the while watching the fluffy clouds and swaying tree tops. Stop it.

In informational writing or argument, description often plays a key role. But within these genres, detail must also include examples (as in the previous passage on camels) and support. As they read, readers are constantly searching for new information (something they didn’t know already) and assessing the validity of the writer’s claims. Without detail, information dissolves into generalities, and arguments deflate.

The Animal Dialogues

My litmus test for good informational detail is pretty simple: Do I learn anything from the passage? Here’s a short example from Craig Childs’ essay on the praying mantis:

A Choeradodis mantid is hooded like a cobra, its mantle green, veined, and shiny like a leaf so it will not be distinguishable by those who might prey on it—the mantle also prevents a bird or reptile from being attracted by suspicious movements as this mantid consumes its prey. Central American Acanthops looks like roughened bark and dry leaves, the macelike head sharply pointed, the eyes formed into spikes. They kill whatever they can. Females are well known for twisting around and devouring males in the middle of copulation. A male missing its head and eaten down to the abdomen will continue insemination unfazed, its nerve trunk still delivering the last message sent by its lost speck of a brain. (The Animal Dialogues, 2007, 238-239)

Well, now. If you didn’t learn anything from that passage, you’ve spent a lot more time studying praying mantises than I.

Argument must also be informative. But in addition, it has to be convincing. Argument depends on evidence, a very special kind of detail that demands firsthand knowledge, meticulous observation, and often, research as well. Our Planet by the MySpace community (and Jeca Taudte) is essentially an argument in favor of making little everyday changes in our lives to combat global warming—things like carrying your own bags to the grocery store or sending e-cards. The book begins with an argument supporting the realities and dangers of global warming. Note the sense of urgency in the following text—one thing that differentiates it from purely informational writing:

Today, as the scientific case for global climate change grows, the facts don’t lie:

  • Since 1979 more than one-fifth of the polar ice cap has melted.
  • Eleven of the twelve warmest years on record were from 1995 to 2006.
  • The number of large wildfires in the western United States has quadrupled in the last 35 years as the average “fire season” has grown two months longer.

The authors go on to tell us that by the end of this century, global sea levels could rise by three feet, and up to one quarter of all existing species could be at risk for extinction if temperatures rise as little as 4.5 degrees (2008, 4).

Our Planet

Is this enough support to make for a strong argument? It’s compelling because the information is specific and detailed. Facts are cited. But we need to know where the information came from. The sources for this data (The Climate Group, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA’s Earth Observatory, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and more) are listed in the bibliography. They’re just not connected, fact by fact, directly to the discussion. Likely the CCSS writers would prefer they were. Nevertheless, knowing that the information is drawn from credible sources makes it far more convincing.


Teaching Detail

Here are six things you can do to teach your students to use detail wisely and well:

  1. Explore the nature of detail. As noted earlier, detail comes in many forms, from charts and graphs to descriptions, quotations or explanations. Begin by brainstorming a list. See how many kinds of detail you can name right out of your heads. Then follow up by searching through writing samples for as many different kinds of examples as you can find. This exercise helps students know what is meant by the comment “Tell me more!”
  2. Branch out! Students often have experience using descriptive detail, but are reluctant or unprepared to use such forms as quotations, facts, examples, and so on. Here’s an excerpt from a student’s argument on violence in films: “Films today are filled with brutality and blood spilling. People die every few minutes—or are horribly maimed or tortured.” The writer offers no detail to back this up. Ask students how a quotation, fact, or example could make this claim more convincing. Can they come up with one possibility of each?
  3. Discuss the importance of evidence. Proof is the queen of detail. It shows, more than any other form of detail, that the writer knows what he/she is talking about. And it is the sine qua non of argument. No evidence? No argument. What constitutes evidence, though? Essentially, it’s provable information. Provable through documentation, firsthand experience or research, or the testimony of experts. In writing an argument, it’s not a bad idea to picture yourself as a defense attorney representing your special client: the truth of your claim.
  4. Become observers. Evidence may come from research—but descriptive detail comes primarily from being a good observer of the world. So practice this. Have students describe something within your classroom, school, or campus. Encourage reflection, extended observation, note taking. See who can notice the most—and capture it on paper. Got something interesting or exotic—say, a rat, hamster, or terrarium—to use as a subject? Splendid! If not, you can write about your shoe, your hand, the view out the window—anything. One kindergarten/first grade teacher I knew invited new moms to visit with their babies. Students wrote expensively and in elaborate detail about their small visitors.
  5. Revise. Imagine if the Craig Childs passage on the praying mantis had been written this way: “The praying mantis is a colorful insect. It can blend into its surroundings. It often kills other insects.” Begin with a passage like this one (on any topic with which your students are familiar—or one they can readily research) and ask students to expand it through detail.
  6. Collect and post favorites. When you come across a passage in which the detail captures your imagination, save it and share it with students. Tell them what you like about it. Author Gary Provost talks about once buying a book because of a single line in which the writer referred to an “alcoholic bull-dog” rather than simply an “alcoholic dog” (100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, 1985, 79). The specific detail convinced Provost that the writer had actually seen the dog. That gave the book authenticity, he said. Detail is powerful.

FEATURE 4: Structure

Hemingway once famously said that “prose is architecture.” No wonder organization is so tough to master. If you think about it, it’s a lot easier to choose a paint color than to build the house in the first place.

What is structure anyway? It’s the skeleton, the framework, the blueprint, the map—or choose your own metaphor. It’s the famous “middle” we tell students about but almost never describe. It’s that mysterious something that takes us from lead to conclusion. And it needs to be well-constructed or readers won’t be able to follow the story, discussion, or argument.

Here are some generic structures—just intended to help you think about the concept of “structure” in more productive ways than “the middle” or “the skeleton.” These are NOT intended as formulas because every piece of writing (except those that follow a boilerplate) has, and needs to have, its own design. They’re simply possibilities:

Main Point or Argument & Support

This is a good method of organizing an informational piece or an argument where one primary idea, point, or position is the focus.

Revealing the Solution

This design works well when there is a mystery to unravel or question to solve.  Clues or bits of evidence lead up to a conclusion. Though it’s often used in narrative writing, research can also reveal “mysteries,” so this is an effective organizational structure for sharing new or startling information.

Comparison and Contrast

Here’s an excellent method of organizing information when you wish to show how things are alike or different: e.g., How much like humans are gorillas? You can present similarities first—then differences. Or, decide which is more important (similarities or differences) and lead up to that—like a punchline. Comparison/contrast is useful in both informational writing and argument.

Question and Answer

If you have a lot of information, but no one point is more important than the others, it may be useful to simply pose five or six key questions (or more) and answer them systematically. This design is useful for both informational writing and argument.


Sometimes—as in Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing—an author doesn’t have three or four points to make. He has 100. In that case, it helps to group details, putting those that fit together into one section or chapter. In Gary’s case, for example, he has a chapter on overcoming writer’s block, another on writing strong leads, one on 12 ways to improve style, another on 11 ways to make people like your writing, and so on. Grouping is enhanced with the use of sub-headings.

Step by Step

This is a viable organizational pattern for informational pieces that show how to do something: How to ski, how to housebreak a puppy, etc. It can also be useful in arguments showing how events led up to (or could lead to) a particular outcome—desirable or not.

Chronological Order

Histories and other stories are often organized in this simple pattern of what happened first, next, after that, and so on. Chronological order doesn’t always flow to A to Z, though. Writers sometimes play with time, beginning at the end, using previews or flashbacks, or moving across major expanses of time.

Visual Patterns

In visual organization, the writer may begin with a large overall impression and proceed to small details, or start with a close-up (food on the plate, a dead body) and expand outward. This approach is useful in any writing (any genre) where a visual impression is significant (the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird or Carl Sagan’s description of the Cosmos).

Point and Counterpoint

An argument is far more convincing when both sides (or multiple sides, for that matter) of an argument are presented.

Recurring Theme

Recurring events—wars, floods, economic challenges, presidents, major films—sometimes offer a common thread that binds together various periods of time.  In My Life in Dog Years, Gary Paulsen recounts periods in his life corresponding to dogs he has owned and loved.

OK, so can we just teach these patterns? No! Let me say that again. NO! That doesn’t work—at all. Being aware of various patterns is helpful, yes. If you were going to design your own house, looking through a book of blueprints would be enormously helpful because it would acquaint you with possibilities. But you’d still want to come up with your own design. And that’s the way people write, too. Further, design needs to flow out of ideas—not the other way around. This is one reason (one of many) that the infamous 5-paragraph essay is so hopelessly inadequate. I used to call it Jell-O organization because you begin with the mold and pour in the contents to fit. Works quite well with Jell-O, but is less successful with writing.

Planning Your Writing

How do design and idea work together then? Shouldn’t writers plan at all? Sure. You just don’t want to get locked in with outlines or other rigid forms. Do a sketch, make a list, make a T-chart (comparison list), or have in mind a general organizational design you will follow. Just don’t get too attached to it. Always start with an idea—and in particular, with a question to answer: e.g., How can we simplify the CCSS for writing teachers? Let your central idea drive the design. Organization is organic, and grows, shrinks, or reshapes itself to fit the message. I plan by listing my main points, and that list becomes my first draft. The beauty of lists lies in their simplicity; you can add or delete, move things around, combine elements—whatever. Here’s another tip: Write a draft lead as soon as you finish your first list—but don’t revise it until after you’ve finished the piece. By then the process of writing will have worked its magic and reshaped your thinking, and you’ll know better how to orient your readers.


Drama: A Different Organizational Design

Moonshot by Brian Floca (2009) is so beautifully written and illustrated you can pour over it for hours—whether you’re eight or eighty-eight. What struck me on the first reading (in addition to the brilliant illustrations) was the voice, word choice, and sentence fluency. The rhythm and sound are lyrical. Almost poetic. I didn’t even think about the organization until I was looking for it (good organization is never obvious)—and then it hit me. It’s ingenious. It doesn’t hammer home three key points and it isn’t divided into chapters or sections. It’s a drama—and it’s centered around three dangerous events: launching Apollo 11 into space, landing on the moon, and returning to Earth. Three acts—like a play. It’s much more than an adventure story, though. It’s an informational masterpiece with story as its organizational framework. If you want a lesson on combining genres, here it is.

Here is the general flow of the book, seen through a dramatic lens:

Act 1

This act sets the stage for all that will follow, and without ever weighting down the text, Floca manages to provide us with expansive information. The book opens with a view of the moon, the mysterious, alluring destination. Then Floca introduces us to the astronauts, to Apollo itself (we see it’s 30 stories tall!) and to Launch Control in Houston. The drama begins with the countdown!

Act 2

This act is all about action—countdown, liftoff, landing. First, Americans throughout the country watch, holding their breath. From inside Apollo, the astronauts feel the ZERO moment approach. Then . . . Apollo is launched. We are in space—verbally, and graphically. During the book’s only quiet moment, we sneak a peek inside Apollo where astronauts struggle with life sans gravity. How do they eat, sleep, use the toilet? Throughout, Floca continues the contrast between life in the spacecraft and life back on Earth, especially for astronauts’ families. Drama builds with a huge close-up of the moon and a search for the landing spot. Then, they’re on the surface! And in a stunning moment . . . Earth, distant, beautiful, far away, as the moon once was.

Act 3

In Act 3, the action winds down as the astronauts return. To color, light, sound, air, safety, all that is familiar. This final act moves quickly, but the tension is sustained, for nothing is sure until they are truly home.


PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

Floca masterfully avoids common pitfalls of organization, and that’s why I chose his remarkable book as an example. Here are some pitfalls to look out for when organizing any text:

  •   Pitfall 1: Beginning in the wrong spot. Floca could have started with the astronauts as children, imagining what they
    would grow up to be. Wisdom tells us not to back up too far from where the action starts—and this pertains to
    informational writing and argument, too. Too much background gives the reader’s mind time to wander.
  • Pitfall 2: Including too many details. What if Floca took us through all the technical tweaks, failures, adjustments, and modifications? Would anyone finish the book? Readers generally want to get on with it. The mind craves the significant, the bizarre, the surprising—the dramatic. Leaving the mundane on the cutting room floor is crucial to good organization.
  • Pitfall 3: Following a formula. Floca’s organization combines chronology with visual order and comparison/contrast. It’s impossible to imagine emulating this organizational pattern because it’s unique to Floca’s book. That’s as it should be. There’s no boilerplate for an original vision.
  •  Pitfall 4: Forgetting the problems. Organization revolves around problems. There’s always a puzzle to solve, a difficulty to overcome. This is true regardless of genre. If there’s no problem, there’s no drama. No high point. Nothing to build to—or wind down from. In Floca’s book, we are constantly aware that someone could die. People could be stranded on the moon—if they get there. Families could lose loved ones. Without this tension, the poetry of the book would be far less compelling.
  •  Pitfall 5: Omitting transitions. It’s vital to link scenes, events, happenings, details. Otherwise, we readers are as adrift as astronauts without a spaceship! Floca is a master of transitional phrases, so that even when he moves from Earth to space and back again, he transports us on words that provide direction: Here below, here in Florida, Near the rocket, after an orbit around the Earth, Onboard, Here where everything floats, At the Moon, Onboard Eagle, Far from home. Though we fly from Earth to the moon and back, we never lose our way.
  •  Pitfall 6: Ending with a fizzle. Floca’s ending could hardly be better. People went to the moon. They could have died. But—they didn’t. Hallelujah! Best of all, he links the lead and conclusion. We begin with the distant view of the moon, and wind up with that distant view of Earth. Every great trip is like that: It begins with a vision of the destination, ends with a longing for home.

Teaching Structure

Here are six things you can do to help your students build structure into their writing:

  1. Trace the journey. Trace the organizational journey of any writer, lead to conclusion, as I did with Brian Floca’s book Moonshot. Abandon all your expectations. Go where the writer leads you. But at the end, talk about what worked well. Where did you feel guided—or lost? It’s not necessary to list everything that happens—that’s too tedious. But hit the high moments or main points or arguments. Tip: Use picture books for this. You can read the whole book in one sitting, and students can recall the content and keep a “vision” of the book’s map in their heads.
  2. Discuss design possibilities. Use the list of organizational designs (comparison/contrast, main point and detail) provided earlier as a discussion point. These are not meant as cut-out patterns or models to follow, but as design possibilities. Imagine you are writing the history of your community or family, the biography of a war hero or cancer survivor, a how-to book on planning a family gathering or choosing a rescue pet. What sort of organizational structure (or combination of structures) might work?
  3. Start with a list of details. One of the best, most successful organizational strategies I have EVER used with students involved the simple task of providing small groups with a list of random details on a topic (e.g., gorillas, soccer, fad diets) and asking them to do three things: (1) Get rid of any details that are not significant or interesting, (2) Group remaining details under sub-headings, and (3) Write the lead sentence for each segment/chapter indicated by your groupings. Results are genuinely amazing—and this activity works across genres.
  4. Identify the high point. Anyone can spot a lead or conclusion. Identifying the high point is much more difficult—and far more critical. Students need to know that narratives are not lists of things that happened. Informational pieces are not lists of details. Arguments are not lists of reasons for believing something. Every piece of writing (every successful piece, anyway) has a high point, a dramatic or significant moment, a turning point, a discovery, an epiphany, a revelation, a problem solved, a difficulty survived or overcome. Organization must revolve around this dramatic moment as surely as our planets revolve around the sun. Have students identify that dramatic moment (sometimes there’s more than one) in every piece they read.
  5. Take a guided tour. Organizing information is like taking readers on a guided tour of your topic. So try that. Imagine, for example, conducting a guided tour of your school for someone who’s never been there. Where would your students begin? Where would they go next, and after that? Where would they end? Why? You might actually physically do the tour—or just brainstorm it. List your stops and imagine yourself giving a short description of highlights at each one. What would you emphasize? What would you leave out? What overall impression would you create? Now imagine the stops on your tour as paragraphs or chapters within a text.
  6. Stress simplicity. As often as not, organization suffers from overload. Student writers begin a piece too early—too far in front of that turning point or dramatic revelation/discovery—include too much information, or go on long after the piece has ended (at least in the mind of the reader). Every style book on earth will tell you that organization is about order and grouping. Well, duh. But that’s a small part of it. Trust me—long before you order and group, you need to cut, cut, cut. You can’t tell everything, and even if you could, no one wants to read it. Cut. Then cut some more. Students who begin with a manageable list of details will have much more success in ordering them well. Organization begins with condensing.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next time around, we’ll address Features 5 through 8: transitions, wording, conclusions, and conventions. We’ll define each feature and—as with this post—include some instructional suggestions. In the weeks to come, we’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, as well as Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills. You won’t want to miss either one.

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150


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

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

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

  • Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at

A Splash of Red

A Splash of Red

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. 2013. Written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Unpaginated.

Genre: Picture book, biography, nonfiction

Ages: Grades 2 and up

Awards: Caldecott Honor Book, Schneider Family Book Award, Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding nonfiction for children


“Make a picture for us, Horace!” From the time he was a small child, Horace Pippin (1888-1946) heard this request everywhere he went—at home, in school, on the job, and later on the battlefields of France in World War I. He had talent to be sure—but he also had vision. Horace seemed to carry pictures of all he had seen in his head, and he had an incredible ability to translate those pictures into sketches and paintings. In words and art, this delightful picture book tells the story of a young man compelled to capture his experience on paper. He summoned details through imagination and memory, then simply “told his heart to go ahead.”

It took years for Horace to become famous, but ultimately, his work graced galleries and museums (where it can be seen to this day), and was purchased by collectors and movie stars. He has been called a folk artist and a primitive artist, and it is easy to understand why; his work is deceptively simple in its lines and choice of colors. Yet it also has a mysterious quality that is remarkably difficult to replicate. In a time when art is often seen as superfluous, a likely target for school district budget cuts, it is heartening to read the story of a person who relentlessly followed his dreams of self-expression and who never gave up, even when fulfilling those dreams became next to impossible. Jen Bryant captures Horace’s moving tale in simple language suitable for even young readers. Melissa Sweet’s distinctively homey art reflects the history of love and challenge that produced a great American artist. Let your young readers and writers see just how captivating nonfiction can be. This is a book that invites and merits multiple readings. It is an artistic masterpiece in its own right.


In the Classroom

1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. The seemingly simple tale has in fact numerous details that help reveal a very strong and interesting character. As you’ll soon discover for yourself, Horace Pippin is one determined fellow! You’ll also want to take note of the “splash of red” in each of Melissa Sweet’s own illustrations. Her style pays homage to the original artist.

2. Background. Art is no longer the common part of school curriculum that it once was. If your school is fortunate enough to have an art program, you might want to let students know that this is not the case everywhere. Do they have a favorite artist? How many have been to an art museum or gallery? Why is art important in our lives? Why do we value it, collect it, admire it—or produce it ourselves? Sharing suggestion: Using a document projector, share some works by famous artists of our time or throughout history. Ask students to comment on various pieces, perhaps to choose a favorite. Writing suggestion: Students may enjoy writing poetry or commentary suggested by a piece of art that speaks to them. You can model this by choosing a favorite piece of your own and writing a poem based simply on words or expressions that occur to you as you view that piece. As an alternative, imagine yourself a figure inside a painting—a dancer, for example. Imagine yourself living the scene you see depicted in the art, and write what you are thinking. Then let students try this.

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students think of themselves as artists? Do any of them draw or paint—or build things? Some may express themselves in other forms, such as drama or dance. Talk about the value of art from a personal perspective. What benefits do we gain from having art as a way of expressing ourselves?

4. Opinion writing. Though art is not commonly taught in schools these days, should it be? Talk about this, and perhaps generate a list of pros and cons, including the cost of having an art program and the need to take time from other subjects versus the advantages of introducing students to numerous artists and art forms. Then ask students to write an opinion piece taking one side or the other and defending their position with reasons based on your discussion or their own thinking.

 5. Central Topic/Theme. What is the central message of the book? Why do you think author Jen Bryant felt it was important to tell Horace’s story? What do we learn from this book?

 6. Details. Where did Horace get his ideas? How does his artistic process (letting pictures come into his mind, then painting what he sees) compare to a writer’s process?

7. Reading for meaning. At one point in the book, Horace says, “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for he must be true to himself . . .” What does he mean by this? (Note: Young students may struggle a bit with this, but many will enjoy the challenge of a discussion with philosophical depth. They may surprise you with their understanding.)

 8. Symbolism.Why did Horace include that splash of red in every single one of his paintings? What might that color have meant to him? Notice Melissa Sweet’s illustrations throughout the book. Does she include a splash of red in her paintings as well? Why do you think she does so?

 9. Inference. Everywhere Horace goes, people ask, “Draw for us, Horace. Paint for us.” Not every artist has this experience. But for Horace it’s almost an everyday occurrence. How come? What is so compelling in Horace’s work that people cannot resist it? Suggestion: Three small replications of Horace Pippin’s actual work appear at the bottom of the very last pages in the book. You might share these on a document projector or, if possible, obtain larger images so that they can take in the details. You can also go online to see replications of Pippin’s work and videos about his life. Simply enter “Horace Pippin” into your search engine for an array of choices.

10. Research. Horace Pippin has often been called a “folk artist.” What does this mean? Have students research this, providing as much help as they require. You might begin with a definition. What is folk art? Then find examples on line to view and discuss. What qualities does folk art exhibit? Be sure to check out the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, as well as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). You’ll find numerous samples of folk art online, as well as interesting summaries of the history of this form. Is folk art something your students might like to try for themselves? Create your own exhibit! And don’t forget . . . Horace Pippin got ideas from his surroundings, experiences, and everyday life. Those simple things can be inspirations for your students, too.

11. Informational writing. Ask students to create a short piece defining “folk art” as an art form and providing one or two examples of folk artists in addition to Horace Pippin. Provide whatever additional assistance with research is necessary.

12. Character development. What sort of person was Horace Pippin? Research this together by identifying specific details or passages from the book that reveal what he was like (e.g., including sketches in his spelling list, helping out at home, finding a way to draw even when he lost the use of his arm). Writing follow-up: Following your class research and discussion, ask students to create a one-paragraph (or longer) character sketch of Horace Pippin, identifying one or more character traits and defending each trait with a specific example from the book.

 13. Organizing through events. A biography can be organized in various ways. For this book, Bryant chose to focus on events that helped shape the person Horace Pippin became. To appreciate how well this organizational design works, ask your students to think like writers and as a class, to make a timeline of the major events throughout the book. (You can do the actual sketching as they offer suggestions. Consider reading the book again as you go and identifying events important enough to add to the timeline). Writing challenge. Students can use timelines or life maps (non-linear lines) to track important events in their own lives. They don’t need to recall everything—but many may know of a move or the birth of a baby through stories told by parents, grandparents, or other care givers. The trick with a good timeline is to capture major events and let the trivia go. These timelines/life maps provide excellent prewriting strategies for creating autobiographies.

14. Voice through art. Like writers, artists have a distinctive voice. Look carefully at the art of Melissa Sweet, as displayed in this book. What words would you use to describe it? Make a class list. Was this particular artist a good choice for illustrating the life of Horace Pippin? Why? What makes Melissa Sweet’s style—or voice—a particularly good match for this story? Suggestion: View a range of picture books illustrated by various artists. Is there a style or voice your students particularly warm to? Consider making an art display using book covers your students feel are outstanding. Opinion writing: Ask students to write a review for a favorite illustrator. The review might include words that describe the artist’s style, or thoughts on what the work makes readers think or feel.

15. Conventions and presentation. Most of the print throughout the book is 19-point Galena Condensed. Most people find this an easy-to-read font. Do your students agree? Notice, however, that the actual words of Horace Pippin (the words he speaks) are made to look very different on the page. How were those words created? Do your students like the chunky letter look? Can they imitate it? Horace himself was commended as an artist for something called “composition,” which is the arrangement of elements on the page. In this book, composition elements include both print and art. How would your students rate the strength of the composition throughout the book on a scale of 1 to 10?


 16. Bringing art up close. If you are lucky enough to have an artist in your community, invite him or her to visit your class to talk with students and engage in a conversation about the artistic process. Prepare students for this interview by asking them to think of questions they might like to ask, and even discussing possible questions with one another and with you. Through this process, students can learn more about where artists get their ideas and how they transform an idea into a piece of art. Note: For an insightful look at the artistic process through a child’s eyes, see Harriet Ziefert’s brilliant Lunchtime for a Purple Snake (2003, Houghton Mifflin). The book is currently out of print, but used copies are available online, often for less than a dollar.


Lunchtime for a Purple Snake 

17. Collaboration. In this book, it’s clear that author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have a harmonious collaboration going on. They work brilliantly together! Each picture seems to reflect the meaning of the words on the page, all the while adding meaning of its own. Have your students try this. Ask them to work in teams of two (one writer, one illustrator) to create a story, poem, informational piece, or any other form of writing. Like Bryant and Sweet, they might consider reading or researching together, brainstorming ideas, engaging in some sort of prewriting, then creating their final piece. Note: To introduce this activity, you may wish to share the Author’s Note and Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book. What ways did Bryant and Sweet find to work together on this project? What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator? Talk about this with your students.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

It’s nearly summer, believe it or not. We plan to be around through the summer, reviewing books you may wish to share with students in the upcoming school year. But before we all get involved in the many activities of summer, we want to suggest some parting ideas for helping students think like writers during the summer months. We have a few light-hearted ideas (we’re not talking research papers here) that will keep students’ thinking skills sharp without draining their energy or taking up too much of that precious summer time. Stop by next week and see our list of suggestions—and bring a friend or two. Don’t forget: It’s not too early to plan fall PD. If you’d like some help making the Common Core manageable and practical, or connecting it to process, traits, and fine literature, we can help design a workshop or series of classroom demo’s just for you. Give us a call at 503-579-3034. And meantime . . . Give every child a voice.


Informational Writing: Common Core and More


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:


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

BIG Book in a Small Package

10 Essential Writing Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s 6

Counting by 7s. 2013. Holly Goldberg Sloan. New York: Penguin (Dial Books for Young Readers).
Length: 380 pp. (61 short chapters)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 5 and up
Awards: YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2012

We know that challenged students can sometimes feel excluded or isolated. But—what about the gifted? In this highly original story reminiscent of Mockingbird (by Kathryn Erskine) and Wonder (by R. J. Palacio), we meet Willow Chance, a bona fide genius who intrigues, bewilders, or annoys almost everyone who meets her. Willow is obsessed with plants and gardening, human medical conditions (most of which she is extraordinarily adept at diagnosing), and of course, the number 7, which she uses to organize the world around her.

Willow is the adopted child of people who clearly L-O-V-E her (p. 9), she’s an only child, and she’s just beginning middle school, for which she hopes (and believes) she is prepared. After all, she has her wheeled luggage (designed for the business traveler), a gardening outfit (to reflect her personality), and abundant knowledge of all subjects in which she is enrolled (with the notable exception of P.E., for which she has no love, period). Her introduction to middle school does not go smoothly, however. Everything about the environment is disturbing to Willow: it’s loud, hostile, and filled with people who seem more threatening or indifferent than friendly. Thanks to her unusual style of dress, one even mistakes her for a custodian.

She does leave her mark, though: Willow breezes through a state exam in under 18 minutes and achieves an unprecedented perfect score. To her surprise and dismay, she is accused of cheating, and immediately sent to counseling for rehabilitation. She has definitely come to the wrong place. Counselor Dell Duke has problems of his own. Middle school students mystify and intimidate him. Why can’t they just solve their own problems and leave him alone? He’s particularly eager to rid himself of the disturbingly precocious Willow, who certainly does not fit nicely into any of the Dell Duke Counseling System categories: The Strange, Misfits, Oddballs, Lone Wolves, or Weirdos.

Just when it seems things could not get worse, Willow’s parents are killed in a car crash, leaving her without friends or resources. She is about to become a ward of the state, which means no more freedom—and no more gardening (her passion and the thing that keeps her mentally grounded). Then, in a startling turnaround, a girl Willow has barely met, Nguyen Thi Mai, makes an impulsive decision that will change everything. Overnight, Willow becomes the newest member of a Vietnamese family hovering on the edge of poverty. With dazzling adaptability, she learns the Vietnamese language and blends into the culture as if she’s always been a part of it. But—will her efforts be enough? She and her rescue family will have to make a remarkably good impression on the Family Services people or Willow will be plucked from her new home like a weed from a garden. Presenting themselves as a typical middle class family might seem a challenge for people residing in a garage—but Family Services has not met Pattie Nguyen, Mai’s force-of-nature mother. In an episode both touching and insanely comedic, Pattie turns everyone’s world upside down to protect what she loves.

By turns deeply moving and profoundly humorous, Sloan’s book is a story of loss and survival, friendship, courage, and the ability of the human spirit to turn rejection right on its head. Even as Willow pulls out all stops to make a new life for herself, she simultaneously and dramatically transforms the lives of virtually everyone around her. In this eloquent, highly engaging protest against labels and stereotypical thinking, we learn that there is more to everyone than we first imagine.

In the Classroom
1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. While it’s an excellent read-aloud, funny in parts, moving or sad in others, you will notice that some meaning is conveyed or enhanced through Sloan’s extraordinarily adept use of conventions (more on this later). For this reason, you may choose to have students read the book on their own, with your guidance, so they can experience it visually. Chapters are short, making this an excellent choice for challenged readers who like to take longer books in small bites. Counting by 7s also makes an outstanding selection for a small-group book club or discussion group.

2. Background. What is the significance of the book’s title? Before reading, ask students to make a guess. Then discuss this again as you get deeper into the book. Why are 7s so important to Willow? Why are lucky or significant numbers important to many people? Do your students have special numbers, words, or rituals that influence their lives—or know someone who does? Can something seemingly so small (a number) actually help us cope or make sense of things? How?

3. Character. The central character in this book, Willow Chance, is a 12-year-old with exceptional mental acuity. As readers, we are told that she is “highly gifted” (p. 18). But even if we were not told, would we still see Willow as highly intelligent? Why? What are some clues that reveal her intelligence? How (other than formal tests) do we gauge human intelligence?

4. Argument. Notice that Willow objects to her “highly gifted” label. “It’s possible that all labels are curses,” she says (p. 18). Do you agree with her assessment? Are we all, as she says, “imperfect genetic stews”? What sorts of labels are used in our society? What about at your school? Can labels victimize people, even if they are ostensibly “good” labels, such as “gifted”? Argument writing: Using your own experience or that of people you know, craft an argument supporting or rejecting the notion of labeling people, even when using supposedly positive terms such as “gifted.”

5. Central Topic/Theme.
What is the central message of Counting by 7s? Is there more than one? Does the writer reveal this message early on—or does it evolve slowly throughout the book? (Just a few possible themes: Labeling people is wrong, labels are misleading, our usual concept of “family” is limiting, everyone is gifted (and challenged) in some way, following your heart can be a good thing . . . ) Do you think writers have a message in mind when they set out to write a story like this one—or does the message evolve as an integral part of the story itself?

6. Organization. Like most narratives, Counting by 7s is written mostly chronologically. If you plotted this book along a timeline, what main events would stand out? Not everything falls neatly in place on that timeline, though. Return to the end of Chapter 1 (p 8). What is happening on this page? Now notice how Chapter 2 (p. 9) opens—and notice the chapter title. How is the author playing with time? Why didn’t she simply flip the chapters and write about Willow’s past history first instead of going back to it after Willow finds out about the accident? Other organizational features to notice: Chapters in this book are mostly short—some only two or three pages long. Organizationally, what freedoms do short chapters give a writer? (Example: The writer can shift focus often—from setting to setting, or character to character.) As a reader, do you like short chapters? Why? Note too that many chapters open with a quotation or axiom. How can a quotation or axiom “set the stage” for the writing that follows? Have any of your students tried this strategy?

7. Voice. Notice the shifts in voice. Many chapters, including 1 through 4, are written in Willow’s own first-person voice. Others, such as Chapter 5, are written in a third-person narrator voice—a voice different from Willow’s. Why would the writer make this choice? What does the first-person voice allow the author to reveal that the third-person does not? Or vice versa? Scanning several (or more) first-person narrative chapters, see if you can identify three or more quotations that reveal Willow’s character or personality. What sort of person is she? Is Willow’s voice typical of what you would expect from someone twelve years old? If not, how is it different? Expository writing: Draft a one- or two-page character sketch of Willow, using some of the quotations you identified as a group or class to support your assertions about her. Narrative writing: Write a two-chapter original narrative, with one chapter written in third-person, one in first-person. What is it like to write this way?

8. Description. Do we know much about what Willow looks like? Is this important? Why might an author deliberately avoid providing too much detail about a main character’s appearance—especially when this is often one of the first things an author tells us? Was this an oversight on the author’s part—or a strategy? Why do you think so?

9. Character development.
Overall, are the characters in this book well developed? To put it another way, do they seem like real people? The Common Core Standards for narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through changes those characters undergo. How does Willow change in this book? What are the most difficult choices she faces? Expository writing: Choose a character other than Willow (Possibilities: Mai, Quang-ha, Pattie, Jairo, Dell Duke). Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze this character. What motivates him or her? How does the person change in the course of the story? What words would you use to describe this person? Does he or she face any difficult choices—and if so, how well are those choices handled? Hint: In choosing a character to write about, you might ask yourself, Is there a character I particularly admire? Or one that surprises me?

10. Detail. Reread the opening to Chapter 20, p. 123ff. What details in these few paragraphs help us to know what Willow’s new home with her Vietnamese family is like? Which details stick in your mind after you’ve finished reading? Why? The Common Core Standards for narrative (along with those for expository/informational writing and argument) emphasize the importance of well-chosen details. Does the writing in this chapter fulfill those requirements? How can you distinguish a really good detail from something more ho-hum? In addition, the CCSS for narrative asks writers to create a vivid setting in which their story unfolds. And settings, of course, are a composite of sensory details—what we see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. Why is setting so important? How does the setting in this chapter influence how Willow feels at this point in her life? Have you ever been affected emotionally by your surroundings, in either a good or bad way? Writing suggestion: In one or two paragraphs, create a setting in which the sensory details set a particular mood or tone for a story that might follow. Hint: Go beyond the visual. Think about including sounds or smells, for example.

11. Conventions. Notice where and how paragraphs begin and end in this book. Does author Holly Goldberg Sloan follow the usual conventional rules for paragraphing? What is different here? Talk about reasons this author might have had for breaking this conventional rule, and the impact it has on readers. In what other ways does the author manipulate conventions to influence meaning or voice? See how many instances your students can cite. (Hint: See pages 28, 37, 46, 53, 109 for just a few examples, featuring capitals, variations in font size, italics, and other features.) Further discussion: When is it OK to experiment with conventional rules? When is this not a good idea?

12. Expository writing. Dell Duke likes to categorize the people in his life. Compare his list from early in the story (p. 46) to the one he creates later (p. 358). What has changed? Why does he have more categories now? Are people within your school, or within our broader culture, also grouped into categories? What, for example? Why do we do this? How does it influence our thinking? Expository writing: Review Willow’s commentary on Dell’s lists (pp. 358-359). In one to two pages, explain why you agree or disagree with her assessment. Using quotations from the book, show why Willow—or any of the characters—fits into more than one category. Is that true of most people? All people? Would it be helpful to add to this list (e.g., philosopher, ecologist, teacher, dreamer)? Note: Compare Dell’s lists with the one Willow creates at the very end of the book (p. 377). How is Willow’s list different?

13. Writing an Argument: philosophical questions. Like all good books, Counting by 7s raises some important philosophical questions. Following are a few that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any of the following or pose a question of your own to form the basis of a written argument:
• Early on, some might say Dell Duke lacks the character traits needed to make a good school counselor. Do you agree? Should he be in this position?
• When Willow achieves a perfect score on a state test, she is accused of cheating. Is this a logical conclusion—or a wildly unfair assumption? (In answering, think of your own response if one of your friends achieved such a score in such record time—or imagine what you might do if you were in the position of the principal.)
• Many people do not seem to understand Willow. But is the reverse true? Or does Willow have exceptional insight into human nature? If you think she does, what evidence can you cite?
• Who is the most morally upstanding character in this book? Use quotations from the book to defend your response.
• Our society has many ways of categorizing people, from geography to race, height, weight, age, IQ, education, physical ability, and almost everything we can think of. Is categorizing people a potentially dangerous thing to do? Why? In defending your response, think of the consequences—both within this book and in circumstances extending beyond the book.
• We often use words like “normal” or “average” to describe people who do not deviate from expectations. But are these categories really an illusion? Is there such a thing as normal?
• If author Holly Goldberg Sloan were asked to define the concept of “family,” what do you think she would say? How does her concept of family compare to your own?

14. Comparison/Contrast: Have any of your students read the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio (see our March 4, 2013 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparison of the two lead characters, Auggie and Willow. What do they have in common? In what ways, if any, are they different? Students should support their assertions with quotations from both books. Narrative writing: Imagine that Auggie and Willow were to meet. Would they like or admire each other? Construct a story about that meeting by creating dialogue between the two.

15. Endings matter. The Common Core Standards call for narrative endings that follow naturally or logically from the story, and bring things to resolution. Focusing on Chapters 59, 60, and 61, discuss the ending of Counting by 7s. On a scale of 1 through 10, with 1 being totally predictable and 10 being a complete surprise, where would your students rank this ending? Satisfying endings, it’s said, wrap up loose ends and answer questions that have been building in the reader’s mind. Given those criteria, would you call this a satisfying ending? Would your students change anything about it, and if so, what? Many professional writers will tell you that the sign of a good narrative ending is that it suggests another story to come. Is that true of Sloan’s ending to this book? If so, predict what will happen in Willow’s life in the next year—or the next ten years. Will she continue to live with Pattie’s family? What career might she choose?

Sidebar: For a review of Wonder and accompanying classroom ideas, see our March 4, 2013 post. For similar information relating to Mockingbird, see our January 8, 2011 post. Remember that you can search our archives by book title, author, or subject matter at any time. You might be surprised how many of your favorites pop up!

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Adhering to the Common Core, inspiring students to be lifelong writers, and sharing the best of current literature: It can feel like a tall order! If you teach students in grades 3 through 5, we’ve got a book that can help. Check out our next post for a review of author/teacher Megan S. Sloan’s inspiring new book, 10 Essential Writing Lessons. A veteran teacher with countless suggestions for guiding students to writing success, Megan has taken modeling to new heights and can show you how to do it, too. We think this is a book you’ll want to add to your professional library.

Remember, for writing and revision lessons directly aligned with the CCSS, please see The Write Traits Classroom Kits by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These kits are grade level specific for grades 1 through 8. Be sure to request the NEW edition to ensure connection to the CCSS. For more information, see
Thank you so much for visiting. Come often, and bring friends (If they don’t know about us already, they might like to!). And . . . for the BEST workshops (or classroom demos) combining traits, Common Core, process and great literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

In Just One Lifetime


If you watched any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, also known as the XXII Olympic Winter Games, you know how important numbers are to the athletes, officials, and spectators, both in terms of understanding the events and determining the outcomes. In fact, each sport has numbers or units peculiar to its type of competition. Here are a few examples from some popular events.

Figure Skating:

2 minutes and 50 seconds—length of the “Short Program”

4-4 ½ minutes—length of the “Long Program”


200 ft. x 100 ft.– Rink dimensions (compared to 200 x 85 in the NHL)

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

3:45.39—gold medal winning time (in minutes)

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

(BTW–The Olympics (not a stunning revelation) is an amazingly rich resource for practical applications of math vocabulary and concepts found in CC math standards: problem solving, place value, decimals, fractions, a range of calculations/computations, terminology, telling time, conversions, Roman numerals, ordinal/cardinal numbers, etc. Wow!)

The book Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives, by Lola Schaefer (one of my favorites from my holiday break reading), has nothing to do with the many different kinds of competition found in the Winter Olympics. But it has everything to do with important numbers in the ultimate competition in the lives of animals—survival!



Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. 2013. Lola Schaefer. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Informational picture/counting book, mixing math and science

Grade Levels: K and up

Features: Back matter—extended information on each featured animal, including scientific name, average–defined/explained mathematically, practice with concept of averaging.

40 pages (including back matter)

Visit to find out more about Lola M. Shaefer and her books.


Each page in Lifetime begins with the phrase “In one lifetime,” matter-of-factly introducing an animal to readers by name, then offering a numerical fact about a specific physical characteristic or behavior. Young readers will want to pay close attention to the mixed-media illustrations—they match the animal’s important number! On one page, for instance, the author informs us that, “In one lifetime, this caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.” Look carefully at the illustration and you will count ten antler sets. We learn that the alligator will lay 550 eggs in its lifetime—Yep! All 550 are there. And the male seahorse, we are informed, will lay 1,000 eggs—have fun counting them! (I didn’t, but I’m sure illustrator Neal did.) Flip to the back of the book and you will find  more detailed information about each of the eleven animals and their important numbers.

The book opens with an informative statement/disclaimer from the author to clarify how she came up with her numbers. She tells us that she based her calculations on the “average adult life span of each wild animal” and researched information on each animal’s behaviors and physical characteristics. I appreciated that author Shaefer let’s us know that even though each animal belonging to a species may be different, because of her in-depth research and her attention to the math, she feels very confident about the accuracy of her averages and approximations—her numbers. In a back section, she informs readers, “Math gives you answers you can’t find any other way. Without math, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.” She speaks confidently to readers with the voice of an “expert,” and her confidence becomes a reader’s confidence in her as an authority.

 In the Classroom

1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You will want to read the back matter, as well, so you are aware of the more detailed content of the informative passages about each of the animals. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud, the illustrations could be shown to students using a document camera. I believe students will call for a second reading, especially if they want to try and count the antlers, spots, flowers, roosting holes, rattles, babies, etc.

2. As You Read (Ideas/Word Choice). Because there are only one or two sentences on each page (and the first sentence always begins with the pattern “In one lifetime…”), the author has to make strong word choices to make sure her message comes through focused and clear. A limited amount of text puts extra pressure on each word choice—choosing the most specific noun, the right adjective (if necessary), and the most precise verb to make sure readers are seeing and feeling the author’s ideas. I suggest doing a second reading of the book to keep track on chart paper of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the author has used on each page. It could be done like this:

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

You could do this in so many ways depending on the age level of your students (and the specific CCSS you may be focusing on). This would give your students a platform for understanding parts of speech and for sentence building in their own writing. An immediate practice for younger students could be to imitate the book’s pattern—In one lifetime—changing  it to In one recess, or In one day, etc. The emphasis would be on communicating an idea in one or two sentences by choosing the most descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Convention Alert!!—this would be an opportunity to talk about commas and why there needs to be one in sentences following this pattern.


In one recess, Cruz blasted the black and green soccer ball against the wall one hundred times.

3. Math One. This book is about animals and some of their important numbers—so let’s not forget about the math opportunities to be found. As you are reading the book, have your students help you keep a chart of the numbers. I suggest writing both the numerals and the number words spelled out. Ask your students to look for patterns, make predictions, etc. Conventions Alert!!—Discuss/practice/apply the conventions for spelling out numbers versus using numerals. (Notice how the author applied the conventions, staying consistent throughout.)

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


4. Math Two. The author has included in the back matter a section called, “What is an average?” Here she defines/explains the word as she has used it—a way to describe a typical or usual amount, and her reasoning for choosing the mathematical average (an expression of central tendency) for the purpose of calculating each animal’s number. To help readers understand, she uses the example of finding the average number of times a person might brush his/her teeth in a week. Younger writers might be interested in writing about themselves and their important number, not focused on a lifetime but based on an hour, day, week, month, year or a particular year in school (e.g. 2nd grade). Their numbers might be about saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lining up, school lunches eaten, tying shoes, hanging up a coat, sharpening a pencil, etc.

In a section called, “I Love Math,” Shaefer explains the importance of applying math to her scientific curiosity to help express what she wanted to say about animals’ lives. For older students, I would ask them to choose a mathematical concept—something from a standard they had been focusing on—and explain it using both words and number examples. Their audience could be another student, a parent, etc. These two sections serve as great examples of a focused message, clear communication through word choice, and being an “expert” on your topic.

5. Math Three. Younger students could use her examples in the “I Love Math” section to write their own “story” or word problems. Student writers would need to be sure to include all the necessary information and word clues to guide readers to the appropriate operation(s) and an opportunity to correctly solve the problem. Convention Alert!!—Writers will need to know the difference between a telling sentence—ending with a period—and a question sentence—ending with a question mark.

 Example (Actual word problem written by a 2nd grader I happen to know.)

Martin has 24 chocolate chip cookies. His best friend Ahmed has 20 oatmeal raisin cookies. How many cookies do they have all together?

6. Average—Without the Math. Though the concept of average is steeped in its mathematical roots, we often use the word as a synonym for usual, typical, normal, regular, or as another way to say mediocre, plain, or unexciting. Choose one of these meanings to launch students into explanatory writing of a different kind. Instead of explaining a concept or procedure, students could take a more personal path and write about—the “average” 6th grader interests, their activities on an average weekend or day off from school, what it means to be an “average” student, the traits of an “average” soccer player compared to a “skilled” player, etc. The writing could even head down the path of persuasive/argument (See STG post from January 31, 2014)—why being called an “average kid” might be a good thing but being called an “average student” might not, for example.

7. Research and Voice. Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

Lola Schaefer says, “I was curious about the lives of animals.” Her curiosity led to research—observation, reading, speaking with/listening to/digging into the work of known experts, etc. Following her lead, have your students select an animal they are curious about to begin “researching.” Depending on the grade level, the research could be done as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. It might involve some computer time, visits to the library, or a field trip to a zoo. As readers, we have confidence in Ms. Shaefer’s writing; her writer’s voice comes through because of her research efforts–she has become an “expert” and writes with that voice, just like your students will need to be for the sake of their readers. Their writing could follow the author’s pattern—finding the animal’s interesting/important number, with the outcome being a few sentences or stretching all the way to a few paragraphs or pages. The length might be connected to the purpose and audience of the writing—a class book written for a younger audience, a science fair-type display for adults, a full-blown research project aimed at convincing lawmakers to help protect a particular animal, etc.

8. Research—Narrative writing. The same research described above could be used to lead students into a piece of narrative/informational writing. In this writing, students would share what they have learned about their animal, including that animal’s significant number, by telling a “story,” fictional but factual story, based on research. The writer’s voice would be that of an expert but because of the created story, more personal, too.

9. Math Four. Since I’ve been so immersed in the Winter Olympics, I can’t help making one more math and writing connection between Lifetime and the Sochi Games. The unit of time in Lola Shaefer’s book is a lifetime—a unit of time varying in length depending on the type of animal and a myriad of other conditions. The events of the Olympics, Winter or Summer, deal with time broken down into units and sub-units so small they’re almost impossible to imagine—tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds. What could possibly happen in such a teeny amount of time? Older students might be interested in writing answers to this question (sentences, paragraphs, poetry) both in terms of Olympic outcomes—medals earned, dreams realized or shattered, etc., and in terms of human events, moments, and emotions.

10. Resources. Here are a few other highly recommended books—directly/indirectly relating to math, math writing, animals, or writing about animals—that you or your students might find useful.



Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices. 1991. Theoni Pappas. San Carlos: Wide World Publishing/Tetras.



How Fast is It? (How Strong is It?, How Big is It?). 2008. Ben Hillman. New York: Scholastic.


Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way. 2006. Betsy Franco. Culver City: Good Year Books.


Mathematicles. 2006. Betsy Franco. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

Vicki will be reviewing Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s.  Don’t forget, we are here for you and your student writers! Are you are  thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.







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

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


The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

Does the topic matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is “logical” order anyway?

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

Logical order should also include these elements:

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


3 Additional Tips

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

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


What to Teach: 6 Essentials

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

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


Some final thoughts

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


Coming up on Gurus . . .

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



CCSS Writing Assessment: 10 Tips for Getting Ready



The CCSS Writing Assessment is coming—likely in 2014 or 2015. While tests are still under development, we know that students will be asked to write—perhaps across multiple class periods (especially if research is involved). They may also be asked to revise existing text. We can probably anticipate some integration of reading and writing, too. For instance, students might be asked to read and analyze a text, such as the Declaration of Independence, or a passage from Shakespeare, and then construct an essay based on that analysis. Such writing could even incorporate the use of other media—e.g., students might be asked to analyze the meaning of Macbeth’s soliloquy, then listen to a performance of that soliloquy and discuss ways in which the actor uses inflection or body language to bring out his interpretation of the text. Clearly, such complex tasks will require more than 25 minutes of impromptu writing time. In contrast with typical writing assessments of the past, students are likely to need time for reading, reflection, research—and perhaps watching a performance or similar presentation. This is a whole new world of writing, one calling for synthesis of multiple skills. Complex assessment calls for complex instruction. Here are some suggestions to help you lay a foundation.



First off, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with the CCSS for your grade level. Visit to review both writing and reading standards. Don’t overlook reading even if your primary focus is on writing because—as indicated above—some portions of the assessment are very likely to interweave the two. Ability to interpret and summarize text, to identify and paraphrase main points, and to intelligently discuss the specific strategies a writer uses (that’s right—the six traits in a nutshell) will all be critical.

As you likely know, there are numerous webinars available online for supporting your journey with CCSS instruction. (Just enter “CCSS webinars” on any search engine to uncover a host of them.) I recommend the following one for writing because I think it’s particularly clear, and also because it contains several helpful examples of what CCSS writing prompts might look like:

For general information, check out

10 Tips—and 6 Things You’re Probably Doing Now

The Common Core standards cover a lot of literary territory. Even with the help of textbooks, workshops, and webinars, you may feel confused or overwhelmed about what to do first—and about how different your writing instruction should look in the months to come. Don’t panic. You are probably doing many supportive things already. So before making major modifications, take a step back and realize you are on the right track if your writing curriculum contains these six elements:

  1. Students write daily—or at least four times a week
  2. Students (fourth grade and up) often produce text of 1-2 pages or more
  3. Students sometimes produce text based on extensive personal research (e.g., reading, viewing of films, interviews, site visits, personal experience, Internet searches)
  4. Students read diversely—e.g., novels, short stories, poetry, editorials, reviews, informational pieces, newspaper articles, and more—and write across a wide range of genres as well.
  5. “Reading” sometimes includes interpretation and analysis of such things as diagrams or charts.
  6. Students frequently discuss writing as writing. In other words, they do not just think of the message in the work of great writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Walter Dean Myers, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Gary Paulsen, Nikki Giovanni, Esmé Raji Codell, and others, but they reflect on the how: How do these writers engage us? What sorts of details do they include? How do they begin and end a piece? How do they make a character come to life—or make a technical concept clear? What words do they use—and why did they choose those particular words? How do they craft sentences or lines of poetry? And above all, what do they do that we, as writers, could try?

So much for the big picture. Following are 10 specific things you can focus on to help students build the strong writing skills needed to do well on the upcoming assessments.

6 Specifics: Begin with Commonalities

If you’ve visited the CCSS site already, you know that the Standards divide writing into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. As different as these genres may be, they do share some commonalities—such as strong beginnings. Take advantage of this in your instruction. It will save you time, and will also help students understand that even though we write for different purposes, some common elements cross all forms. Following are six of those commonalities:

  1.  Beginnings. No matter the genre, those first lines—or first words—count. One of my favorite leads comes from a book titled The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (2006, Random House): “Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox” (3). I was hooked at once. Good beginnings do many things. They engage us, to be sure. But they also preview what’s to come. They raise questions in our minds—questions we can only answer by continuing to read. Beginnings, or leads, set the stage. You can give students skill in writing good leads by modeling the writing of leads yourself (write two or three for a piece you’re working on and ask them to choose the favorite), by sharing outstanding leads from literature (remember Charlotte’s Web?), by asking students to collect favorite leads from the literature they love (focusing on informational pieces as well as narrative), and by asking students to write multiple leads for their own work, then choose the one that works best.
  2. Support/detail. Detail is critical in any form of writing—and it comes in many guises. Talk about this, and ask students to see how many different kinds of detail they can recognize. In Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2013, Random House), author Carol Rifka Brunt frequently uses sensory detail (How many different senses are at work here?) to put us right at the scene—as in this passage describing a medieval festival: “We were drinking hot mulled cider, and it was just the two of us, alone with the greasy smell of a pig roasting on a spit, and lute music and the whinny of a horse about to go into a fake joust and the jangling of a falconer’s bells” (12). Imagery is the name of the game in Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues (2007, Little, Brown and Company). Notice how the right turn of phrase helps us picture precisely what a flying raven looks like: “It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a marble” (127). In One Summer (2013, Random House) Bill Bryson makes factual information easy to digest in this explanation of why Babe Ruth, statistically the seventh best pitcher of all time, was pulled from the mound: “The problem was—and never before for any human had this been a problem—he was also a peerless hitter . . . In 1918, to take advantage of his bat, the Red Sox began playing Ruth at first base or in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The year 1918 proved to be the worst ever for home runs in major league baseball. The Senators as a team hit just 4 home runs that year. The Browns hit 5, the White Sox 8, and the Indians 9. Babe Ruth alone hit 11” (p. 113). [Actually 12, but as Bryson explains, Ruth’s 12th home run was recorded as a triple.] Details can be facts, anecdotes, images, statistics, proofs, events, examples, definitions—and more. Create a classroom collection to help students think expansively about detail. A good question to ask them is this: What form does detail usually take in each of the three umbrella genres—and why are these subtle differences important?
  3. Transitions. In a writing assessment, transitions can mean the difference between a high score and a mediocre one because writing without transitions can be annoyingly hard to follow. So, how to teach this? Those lists of “100 Effective Transitions” are, I think, helpful for introducing the concept. But they’re not an end in themselves. Words and phrases like Afterward, Meanwhile, However, and Therefore give us a feeling for what transitions are and how they work. But on their own, they’re not enough. Think of it this way. As you’re driving down the highway, you need to know where you’re headed in order to know which way to turn and when. Choosing from a list of options—right, left, north, south—won’t help you unless you know your destination. So what do transitions do? They link ideas, of course—but they do more than this. Transitions actually change the way we look at information, much the way furniture and art change how we see a room. Let’s say I’m writing about how an unexpected wind damaged crops in a farming community. I might write this: Winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. No houses were damaged. This makes sense in a basic, mechanical sort of way, but you would get far more out of the passage if I wrote this: Without warning, winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. Remarkably, no houses were damaged. You might share some samples like this with students. Find a passage with excellent transitions and rewrite it sans transitions. Have them revise it by adding a few transitions they think make sense (I recommend doing this orally as a class because you’ll be amazed at the discussion it generates). Important: Realize that students’ suggested revisions may or may not match the author’s original. This does not matter at all; what counts is creating a passage that makes sense. What else can you do? With students, collect and discuss passages in which transitions are used well, and talk about each writer’s technique. In the Prologue to One Summer, Bill Bryson stretches well beyond the old clichéd list we know by heart to come up with phrases like these: At thirty-eight stories, From a distance, By a curiously ironic twist, With his Gallic charm and chestful of medals, From almost nothing, Entirely coincidentally, For some moments, To make matters worse, and When preparations were complete (pp. 1-22). Bryson didn’t grab these from a list. They show his thinking in action. More than almost any other element of writing, transitions reveal a writer’s mind at work.
  4. Language. Language is all about vocabulary. Before you reach for a list—any list—however, consider how difficult it is to memorize word meanings out of context. My heartfelt recommendation is that you not waste your time with ineffective shortcuts. Memorization is difficult at best, yields minimal long-term gains, and results in affected text like this line from an eighth grader: We always get inured when we skate. Pardon? First, put all vocab words into sentences or short passages of 2-3 lines. Giving words a context will enable students to make inferences about meaning, and once they know a word, to understand the nuances of meaning that dictionary definitions alone seldom make clear. If possible, use passages from texts students are currently reading or studying. Don’t feel bound by the literature in your own class. Samples from math, physics, biology, history and other content areas are extremely helpful. Take your time. Just imagine if students really added 10 words a week to their vocabularies. That’s substantive progress. Only words students use both correctly and with confidence at just the right moment will make a serious difference in performance scores. Words used inaccurately or inappropriately not only create confusion or misinterpretation, but risk creating the impression that the writer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. Inured is a great word, but you need to know when to haul it out, and when to simply say Skating every day helped us get used to the cold weather.
  5. Endings. Nothing creates a stronger impression in the reader’s mind than an ending—regardless of whether it’s good or bad. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you know how important the ending to that series was. Had it not gone well, much of the writing and acting that had gone before would have been for naught. Viewers are unforgiving when it comes to bad endings. Readers are even more critical. If I hand you a book and say, “Boy, this is great right up until the end,” it’s unlikely you’ll ever open it. Endings, important as they may be, can be tricky to write. The old standbys, rehashing your three key points, or waking up to discover “it’s all a dream,” are potentially deadly. Readers want new content—or a new perspective. At the close of her informational text Birdology (2010, Simon and Schuster), author Sy Montgomery uses language so new and fresh we feel we’re hearing her primary message for the first time: “Birds are as ordinary as they are mysterious, as powerful as they are fragile, so like us and so beguilingly Other. Birds bring us the gifts of Thought and Memory, guided as they are both by intellect and instinct. These winged creatures, made of air, have outlived their kin, the dinosaurs. It is our duty and privilege to protect them” (242). An ending like that lingers in our minds, causing us to think differently about birds. A great way to teach endings is with a chapter book or anthology in which each chapter or section offers an effective ending. For an informational example, try Ben Hillman’s How Fast Is It? (2008, Scholastic). Here are some ear-catching conclusions from several one-page essays on speed: “That’s an ostrich: tall, fast, deadly—and so good-looking!” (5); [from an essay on high tech trains] “So forget about your Great Train Robbery. At these speeds, crime just doesn’t pay” (7); [from an essay on penguins and flying fish] “Sometimes it pays to break the rules” (29). Endings have a sound all their own—think of the final lines from Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. They also accomplish things no other portion of the text can do. Endings can wrap up loose ends, reveal a secret we’ve been wondering about, suggest what might happen in the future, answer (or raise) a question, surprise the pants off us, make us laugh aloud or cry, toss the ball into our court, suggest next steps—and much more. What they must never do is let us down, come to a screeching halt, leave us bewildered, repeat words and phrases we’ve already heard, anesthetize us with clichés, or bend credibility to the breaking point. Narrative endings need a touch of drama. Informational endings often contain a surprise fact or most important point yet to be revealed. Arguments often end with a powerful piece of evidence, recommendations about what the reader should think or do, or a prediction about the consequences of a bad choice. As you create your class collection of powerful endings, keep these differences in mind.
  6. Organizational structure. Like endings, the architecture of writing differs genre to genre. To figure out how, you simply have to analyze a few pieces. Don’t cheat, though. I’m appalled by textbooks or lessons that offer diagrams to make these various frameworks clear. First off, there is no one way to structure a story, essay, or argument, any more than there is one way to build a house. And second, diagrams, for the most part, are only helpful if you draw them yourself. So—do that. Have students work in small groups (2 or 3) to see if they can map writers’ thinking. Have one group (or two) work on narrative, one on informational, another on argument. With narrative, students should notice that a mere list of events does not make a story. Events need drama; they have to build up to something: an emotional explosion, the resolution of a problem, a discovery, the unveiling of a secret, a moment of change. Further, stories have a point—just as informational pieces do. If you’ve ever interrupted a story teller with the question “Why are you telling me this?” you know what I’m talking about. The secret to a good informational piece is focus. Writers who try to tell us about “U.S. History,” “The Planets” or “Life on Earth” are biting off bigger chunks than they—or we—can wrestle with. Smaller topics (“The Climate of Venus,” “Poisonous Spiders of the Amazon”) allow for organization like a wheel, with the main point at the hub, and every single detail relating in some way to that point. How the details are presented varies widely, though. Some writers start with the familiar and save details we could never have imagined for the end. Some begin with what’s easy to comprehend, laying a foundation for what’s tougher to grasp. There are no rights or wrongs—exactly. But the writer does need to continually ask, What will keep readers reading? And as Elmore Leonard famously said, leave out the parts people skip. With argument, it’s important to lay out the controversy early on—and to make the writer’s position clear. Details take the form of evidence, and each point must be clearly and thoroughly presented. As with informational writing, it is sometimes helpful to follow a dramatic design, building to the most compelling evidence at the close. Argument requires two organizational features that other forms do not: (1) The writer needs to present the opposition’s point of view, as well as reasons for discounting or minimizing that view; and (2) The ending must include some sort of call to action, recommendation, or predicted consequences of ignoring the evidence at hand. Picture the closing argument in a courtroom case, and you’ve got it.


4 More Specifics: Classroom Practice

Writing practice is nearly always valuable. But the following four kinds of targeted practice build specific skills likely to be especially helpful to writers in upcoming writing assessments:

  1. Quick-writes.  In addition to creating original text, students may be asked to revise pieces that are faulty in some way—or have something (e.g., lead or conclusion) missing. You can prepare students for this kind of revision with 10-minute practice sessions, during which they might do any of the following: add a lead to a piece that doesn’t have one, add an ending that flows right out of the text provided, create transitions where none exist, delete a sentence or sentences that seem to wander from the topic, tighten up a wordy passage by crossing out unneeded words or phrases, replace ill-chosen words with effective substitutes, and so on.
  2. Reading aloud. I’ve known several teachers who open every class with a poem. And although I love and applaud this practice, I also know how important it is for students to also hear the very different rhythms of journalism, technical writing, argument, and exposition. Think about ways you could increase the repertoire of what you share aloud. Also think about how you introduce what you read. Are you requiring students to be careful listeners, and to use what they hear to define genre in their own minds? When we open with words like “Here’s a story by . . .” or “Listen to this example of outstanding informational writing . . .” we give away the game. Instead, try simply providing the title and author. Ask students to make notes as they listen and to tell you what genre they hear. Most good writing is a blend of genres, so in many ways, the separation of writing into narrative, informational, and argument is artificial—and students will likely discover that (This in itself is a good topic for discussion). But they’re also likely to notice many subtle differences that define a writer’s purpose. Informational writing and argument tend to have more direct, forthright leads and endings, for instance. Technical writing and journalism, both “fact-heavy,” tend to have shorter sentences because the mind cannot process too much information in one swipe. The quality of detail (as noted earlier) also differs genre to genre. Narrative, in contrast with other genres, is far more dependent on special features like character development and dialogue. Awareness of these and similar differences helps prepare students not only to read with a better understanding of a given writer’s purpose, but also to write with more purpose themselves.
  3. Treasure hunting. You may be wondering where you will find time to dig up all these examples of striking leads or endings, significant details, well-crafted sentences or memorable phrases. The answer is, you don’t need to find all of them. Have students do some of this treasure hunting. You can dig up a few introductory examples to prime the well. Then turn students loose to explore the whole world of writing (not just books, but articles, the Internet, historical documents, newspapers and more), hunting for pieces that move them. Share them aloud as a class or in small groups, and discuss what makes each one special. What is so stirring about that opening to the Gettysburg Address? Why are we still reading and performing Shakespeare after hundreds of years? Reflecting on the how’s and why’s of good writing is vital in preparing for CCSS assessment.
  4. Editing. Good writers are not always good editors—and vice versa. So we can’t assume that just because students write daily (or at least frequently) their editing skills will miraculously develop. This is like assuming that if a person swims for enough hours, he or she will also learn to dive. The skills are related, but different. Editors have an eye for conventional detail that is similar to an artist’s eye for shape or light. Some editors have a talent for it, sure. But a great deal of this eye for detail comes with practice and patience. Editors look carefully at text. They read aloud—and they often read more than once. They don’t scan, as if admiring a landscape. Like a hawk hunting for prey, they zero in on specific things: e.g., misspelled words, missing or faulty punctuation, lack of subject-verb agreement, shifts in tense, missing capitals. Admittedly, beginning writers make some mistakes because they just don’t know the rules yet. Often, though, mistakes are the result of hasty writing or review that allows things to be missed. You can do two important things to reverse this. First, teach to the errors. Notice what students are struggling with most, and focus your direct instruction there instead of trying to cover everything. Make sure basic rules are understood. Second, provide daily editing practice—not a single sentence with many errors, but a whole paragraph with just a few errors. The occasional error camouflaged in extended text is trickier to spot, and demands more careful reading. Give students time to edit, then have them compare notes with a partner. Finally, edit the piece as a class, guiding your students line by line so they can compare their editing with yours, and ask questions. Do this as often as you can. Anyone who thinks conventions won’t count all that much in upcoming assessments hasn’t been paying attention. Every editorial problem your students know how to correct pushes them closer to a high score. What’s more, like a clean shirt and shiny shoes, good conventions create an impression, like it or not. Those of us who have been involved in large-scale assessment don’t like to admit this, but it’s true: Students who write conventionally clean text are often perceived as better thinkers than those whose text is riddled with errors—even when this is not the case. Moreover—if you’ve visited our site recently, you already know this—there is the very real looming possibility that some writing will be assessed, at least for conventions, using AI (artificial intelligence). Be ready.


Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills

If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons of the sort described in this post, we can put them right at your fingertips. Jeff and I have created a host of lessons designed to help students write across genres, create effective leads and endings, use transitions wisely and well, choose words and phrases that work, go from bland and general to clear and detailed, revise with purpose, and edit like pro’s. If you prefer to design your own lessons, you don’t need our help. But if you’d like to have that part done for you (lessons we promise your students will actually like), we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits. All lessons are easy to teach, written with voice, and grade-specific (and yes, you can choose those you like best). For more information, please visit this site:

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Thanks to our regular followers and to everyone who stopped by this week. Come often—and bring friends!

This will be our final post in December, but we will return early in 2014, when Jeff promises to review some of the best books he’s discovered recently. His reviews are always intriguing and dynamic—you won’t want to miss them.

Meanwhile, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences. Edited by Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Richard Haswell. 2006. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Genre: Teacher resource

233 pages, discounting extensive bibliography and glossary.

Introduction and Summary

This book requires a little background . . .

Back in the day, large-scale writing assessment was fun. I am not making this up. The scoring was done by teachers (some current, some retired), and they returned year after year to be part of the festivities and to share their insight and wisdom with one another. No one ever wanted to miss the scoring sessions, and they phoned months in advance (not making this up either) to ensure that they would be part of the team for the upcoming year. It certainly wasn’t the money—which was pathetically small. It was the camaraderie, and the opportunity to learn about student writing.

During our weeks together, we read many papers aloud and discussed them at great length. We imagined the faces behind those papers, and talked about students we would love to coach or teach. We identified recurring problems and discussed ways of addressing them—and the thinking of those early teacher/raters formed the foundation for the 6 trait workshops that evolved through the years.

We didn’t read student writing every single minute. As anyone who teaches knows, the mind needs diversity to stay sharp. So we took hourly breaks. We also read to one another from the greatest writers we could identify—people like Maya Angelou, Larry McMurtry, Garrison Keillor, Dylan Thomas, Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. This is how we taught ourselves to think more deeply about things like detail, voice, word choice, fluency, and creative use of conventions. When a student paper was especially stunning (and many were—contrary to the rumor, large numbers of students actually write brilliantly), people would ask, “Can we have a copy of that?” They wanted to celebrate the work of these students by sharing it aloud with family and friends. It was a way to keep the writing alive. At the end of each season, scorers hugged one another and headed off to a place called The Mad Greek for outrageously good sandwiches and a goodbye beer. The most frequent comment was this: “I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and use what I have learned.”

Our reading goal was 12 papers per hour (most averaged a page and a half to two pages. We didn’t push people to read faster (despite budgetary pressures) because we wanted them to take enough time to comprehend what each student was saying—enough time to notice the detail, appreciate the word choice, marvel at the originality, feel touched by the voice.

Fast forward . . . Nothing like this happens now. Raters work mostly for professional agencies and publishing houses. They are “trained” in record time through a blitz method that simply asks prospective raters to match sample papers with anchor papers—and if matches are achieved, they are trained. Raters may be teachers, but sadly (and understandably), many teachers want nothing to do with this process. And so, raters are just as likely to be people with some writing or editing experience—or anyone with a four-year degree who
can meet the requirements. They are often urged to read at breakneck speeds of 20 papers per hour, with bonuses awarded to those who can read faster than this (rates as high as 30 papers per hour are not unheard of, and speed is rewarded).

As a sidebar, let me say that while it is quite possible to read a riveting novel at this pace (you’ve probably done it yourself), reading student writing is another matter altogether. When you read a student’s work, you’re not reading for plot. You’re reading to assess, and that means paying very close attention to the central meaning and how it’s developed, the organizational design of the whole, the use of words and phrases, the beginning, the ending, transitions, and the general flow. I submit it is impossible to do this in any fair and consistent way at a speed of 20+ papers per hour. And I mention this because of the current furor over machine scoring. If you’ve been living in a cave, maybe you missed it—but there’s outrage right now over the possibility that student essays are being (or might be) scored by computers programmed to do just that.

Let me be clear. This outrages me, too. I am wholly, one hundred percent, against automated scoring. At the same time, it also occurs to me that human scoring, as currently conducted, is anything but a viable alternative. In fact, it’s about as close to automated scoring as you can get and still have humans involved. In order for human scoring to make any serious difference, and to be significantly different from automated scoring, the following things would need to be true:

  • The raters need to be teachers—the people we trust to assess students’ writing the other 99.9% of the time
  • These teacher/raters need sufficient training to become thoroughly familiar with the criteria used to assess the writing—and they need to agree whole-heartedly with those criteria (In fact, it’s best if they are the ones who developed them)
  • Training needs to occur not just for a short period at the beginning of the assessment scoring period, but throughout the scoring process
  • Teacher/raters need frequent opportunities to talk with one another, to share perceptions and observations, so that everyone’s insight and awareness are sharpened
  • The pace needs to be realistic—ideally, no more than 12 papers per hour—so that readers can truly pay attention to what they are reading and respond appropriately and thoughtfully to something as complex as writing

OK, let’s take off the rose colored glasses. These things happened once—a long, long time ago, before some people made a painful discovery: Assessing student writing in this way, while both engaging and rewarding (it’s some of the best professional development available), is incredibly expensive. It isn’t going to happen again. Readers will be pushed to the limits of their brains, eyeballs, and ability to sit. And whether, under these conditions, they can (at least consistently) provide feedback that is of any more value than machine scoring is highly questionable. What do we do about this?

Before you leap to answer this question, have a look at a fascinating book: Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences, edited by Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Richard Haswell. The book contains 16 essays, written by a variety of language arts and assessment specialists, and exploring issues like the following:

  • Can machines really understand the meaning of text?
  • What traits do computers focus on in assessing writing?
  • What are their limitations?
  • Is it possible for savvy students to fool the machine—and if so, how?
  • How do students react when they find out their essays are machine scored? Do they mind? Do some actually prefer it?
  • Is computer analysis of writing of any value in instruction?
  • What do we stand to lose as an educational community by allowing machines to score our students’ writing?

This is an important book not only because of the current controversy surrounding writing assessment associated with the Common Core, but also because a number of colleges and community colleges are already making use of automated scoring programs. As of this writing, the Common Core alliances do not plan to use machine scoring for extended pieces of writing. To learn more about this, check out the article Automated Essay Scoring (AES) and the Common Core State Standards by John Wood (May 20, 2013). It is available online. You may also want to read the new NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) position paper on automated scoring, Machine Scoring Fails the Test, approved April 2013. You can find this and many valuable related links at

Because of budgetary considerations, however, we have no guarantees that machine scoring will not become more acceptable in the future, or that it will not increasingly be used to assess college placement essays—or even everyday college classroom writing.

What’s at stake here . . . As you peruse these or related articles, please ask yourself this: What do we value when it comes to writing instruction? What are we measuring here? Whether student essays are read by machines or mind-numbed people imitating machines, we are certainly not looking in depth at idea development, organizational design, creative use of language, or the ability to capture and hold the attention of an audience. Do we not care about these things anymore? For that matter, when we ask students (or anyone) to write for 20 or 30 minutes on a cold topic that is of no interest to them (except for purposes of the test), a topic about which they have no time to think or do research, what are we hoping to discover? How many people can write cogent sentences under pressure? This is not writing. So let’s stop pretending we are measuring writing at all in this ridiculous fashion. Writing involves planning, thinking, reflecting, reading aloud (to oneself or others), and a veritable symphony of drafting and revision. We can write grocery lists and thank you notes in 20 minutes. We cannot write essays. We cannot write anything representative of our capabilities.

Current approaches to writing assessment are a charade. Machine scoring is but one small part of a much bigger problem. To assess writing effectively, we need to—

  • Figure out what we value—what we’d truly like to see from our student writers
  • Set up an assessment that measures what we want students to do, not just what they can do in 20 minutes
  • Come up with a way of scoring results that matches our assessment approach

As long as we put budgets ahead of student learning, “writing” assessment results will be bitterly disappointing—and good writing teachers will have no idea what to do about it because they will recognize that we are measuring something other than writing.

Highlights of the Book

This book raises a number of interesting issues related to automated scoring—and the possibility that computer programs might be used instructionally (heaven forbid) in the future. (If this doesn’t scare you, it should.) Here are a few highlights that caught my attention:

  1. The making of meaning. Patricia Freitag Ericsson’s essay “The Meaning of Meaning” (Chapter 2) explores the nature of meaning itself. How do computers achieve their so-called natural language processing, or making sense of human speech. Is it a thinking process, as we imagine actual thinking to be, or more of a mathematical process in which words are added to other words, rather like Legos, to form some programmed “whole” with a predictable and formulaic meaning? As she tells us, “If composition is about making meaning—for both the writer and the reader—then scoring machines are deadly. Writing for an asocial machine that ‘understands’ a text only as an equation of word + word + word strikes a death blow to the understanding of writing and composing as a meaning-making activity” (p. 37). Within this same essay, Ericsson cautions us about the very real possibility of social, ethnic, or racial bias in a machine that is insensitive to variations in language or dialect. A human can be (often is) motivated by a wish or need to understand another human being, even if that means climbing some linguistic mountains. The machine does not share this wish.
  2. Word meanings.  Putting aside the meaning of the text as a whole, consider individual words for a moment. In English, a given word—even a simple word such as go, hand, or see—can have numerous meanings, depending on context. In “Can’t Touch This” (Chapter 3), Chris M. Anson maintains that countless misunderstandings can arise from the difficulty inherent in programming a computer to “understand” all these possible meanings. Simply programming the computer with variant definitions is not enough because interpretation of text (ask anyone who’s ever taught vocabulary or ESL) “requires knowledge of the word’s surrounding sentential and discursive context” (p. 43). Consider these sentences: The burgers are ready to eat. Grandma is ready to eat. Or think how a simple word like hand is used in the following sentences: Hand me the book, Let me give you a hand, Let’s give that dancer a hand, Give me your hand in marriage, He’s a good hand at cooking, That jacket is a hand-me-down, Deal me another hand. Now imagine that your writing will be assessed by a machine that essentially can’t distinguish among these very different usages.
  3. Length. I once read an article by a man who claimed he could “score” a student’s paper from across the room, and guarantee almost a perfect match with machine scores. Actually, this is not as magical (or even difficult) as it sounds. As you will discover throughout the book, machines favor length (up to a point—they don’t respond well to multi-page complexity). Given two essays, one running half a page, and one a full page, it is almost inevitable that the full-page essay will score higher if automated scoring is used. Now admittedly, some human raters share this bias. (Where else, after all, would the computers get it?) But if three decades of writing assessment experience has taught me anything, it’s that length per se is a poor and unreliable predictor of quality. One of the finest essays we ever received from an Oregon eighth grader ran only four or five sentences—it summed up the memories the student could call up simply by touching the pins he’d fixed to an old baseball cap. Instead of saying, “Ah—I wish you’d written more!” we said to ourselves, “How did you manage to do that in so few words?”
  4. Correctness. Second favorite trait of computer raters? Correctness, of course! Computers are just made for spotting (and counting) errors—and this preoccupation with correctness is also a recurrent theme of the book. Should errors matter as much as meaning? Well, that’s another whole topic . . . for now, let’s focus on how good computers really are at this error hunting business. Unfortunately, even something so apparently foolproof is anything but. First of all, machines do not, reputation aside, catch every error. With respect to spelling, they do fairly well, but they’re still working to master grammar, usage, and punctuation. And suppose you want to get creative?! Or super emphatic!! Expect a lower score if you blend or repeat punctuation marks. Want to do away with capitals or punctuation altogether? You’ll need to imitate e. e. cummings or Faulkner on your own time. Computers are not good at adapting. They’re not out to make friends. They’re out to assess you—which means, in part, to catch you making an error. Edmund Jones describes a research project in which he edited students’ work (after it was first machine scored) to see if the editing would improve the scores (103). It did, a little—but only sometimes. Corrected spelling and capitalization seemed to boost scores far more than changes to such things as wordiness, faulty antecedents, comma splices, or misplaced modifiers (104-105). In other words, like most of us, computers have pet peeves (programmed in, of course). Thus, when writing is assessed by a computer, a high score in conventions doesn’t necessarily mean your conventions are impeccable; it just means you were foxy enough not to make mistakes the computer was programmed to recognize. Clever you.
  5. Big words. As with length and conventions, computers are programmed to favor big words. (Apparently they are immune to the implied advice of Hemingway who famously said he knew all the big words, but chose not to use them.) We must remember that computers are very, very good at counting. By comparison, we humans have no skill at this whatsoever (though I’ve certainly known teachers who could not be stopped when it came to counting errors in student work). It is simple for the computer to tally the number of letters or syllables per word, words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, instances of word or phrase usage, and so on. The moral of this story is (when automated scoring is in your future), never say big when you could say voluminous, amazing when you could say prodigious, or convert when you could say digitize. The prodigious digitization of voluminous data suggests that computers reward big words with high scores. It’s that simple.
  6. Organization. For years, in every workshop or class I have taught, I have stated my belief that organization is the most difficult of the six traits to score, to teach—or to master. That’s because it’s so exquisitely complex. Where to begin? What to say next? How long to continue? How to end? Anyone can come up with a random list of details—but arranging those details so they become a mystery story, documentary script, motivational speech, or argument? That takes thought. Sometimes it takes genius. And following the organizational design of a writer who doesn’t set out obvious sign posts—my first point, my second point—takes incredible concentration and the ability to follow someone else’s thinking. As we’ve seen already, computers are best suited to the simple tasks: identifying specific words or phrases, counting sentences, and so forth. The complexity of organizational design is beyond them.

Edmund Jones tested one computer program’s awareness of organization by scoring a sample of writing, then shuffling the sentences (so their new random order made virtually no sense as a whole) and rescoring the piece (109-111). The scores were essentially the same for organization, but curiously enough, dropped slightly for conventions. Well, once a conventions fanatic, always a conventions fanatic. I should add that through the years, I’ve known many human raters to lower scores in organization simply because, as they put it, “I couldn’t follow this.” Apparently computers cannot follow human thinking either—at least not all the time. But again we must remember, computers’ shortcomings and apparent biases are reflections not only of a machine’s inherent limitations—but of the preferences and capabilities of the programmers.

7. What happened to voice? It’s no surprise—and several essays note this—that computers cannot score voice, nor its first cousin style. They don’t get it. Computers have no emotional response to writing, no appreciation, no feelings of horror, joy, loathing, terror, ecstasy, amusement. No feelings at all. But—does this matter? After all, we could argue that if students present us with good information and organize it well and show enough mastery of conventions to aid readability and preclude confusion, well then surely that’s enough. Is it, though?

Think of the last time you recommended a book to a friend. No—think of the last six times. The last six books you loved. Do you remember what you said as you held that book out to your friend? Did you say, “Flawless conventions. Well done.” Probably not. How about, “The guy’s an organizational genius.” Also unlikely. Maybe you did say, “I learned so much” or “You can’t believe the description!” Well, information and description are components of ideas, and ideas matter. But when it comes to singling out the writing we love most of all, the writing that touches us, the writing we remember forever, nothing trumps voice.

You were responding to voice if you’ve ever said something like this: I couldn’t put it down, I was riveted, I got the chills, I could hardly bear to read it, You won’t believe this story, I’ve never read another book quite like it, I laughed out loud, It made me cry, I felt as if the author were talking right to me, I never thought I’d like this topic, but this author made me care about it, I’m going to read it again, You have to read this. There are two fundamental reasons for writing: to provide essential information, or to touch another human soul. If we discard voice, we’re only left with one—and then good luck motivating young writers.

8. Marching backward. The use of computers to assess (and by extension, teach—yes, some people do advocate this) student writing seems on the face of it so advanced—well, in a kind of space-age sort of way. After all, robots are building automobiles and operating on people. So surely computers can assign scores to short essays. In my favorite essay from the book (“Why Less Is Not More,” Chapter 15, pp. 211ff), author William Condon explores what we might lose by advocating (indeed, even allowing) automated scoring. He sums things up this way: “In other words, instead of a step forward, or even marking time, machine scoring represents a step backward, into an era when writing proficiency was determined by indirect tests” (212). That is a brilliant connection—and defines the divide. Those who favor machine scoring, or justify it because it saves time and effort, also tend to be those who see no problem with assessing writing by asking multiple choice questions about writing: e.g., Which of the following sentences contains a grammatical error? Which of the following would provide the most effective lead for the paragraph that follows? Multiple choice testing is by nature reactive. Writing is generative. A generative process cannot be measured by multiple choice assessment because there is absolutely no way to anticipate the infinite array of possible responses. Only a non-writer could seriously think otherwise.

Valuable assessment—what Condon calls “robust” assessment”—must take us inside the classroom, where the writing is created. We have to look at such things as the student’s understanding of and application of process. Does the writer choose topics? Lay out a play for research or some way of gathering information? Does the writer know how to use feedback judiciously, without ignoring it or feeling overwhelmed? Can the writer integrate drafting and revising effectively, using self-assessment to discover when the writing is working well? These are the kinds of questions we want answered when we design writing assessment that makes a difference.

Condon also points out that machines are usually used to score writing that is created under artificial conditions: Students are assigned prompts thought up by someone who doesn’t even know them, and asked to write under severe time constraints with limited or no access to resources, and usually with no opportunity to share their writing or revise it (except in the most superficial manner). What they produce under these conditions cannot ever be representative of what they can do when true writing process is allowed to take its course. As Condon tells us, “Such a sample, however it is scored, cannot tell us much about a student’s writing ability, because the sample’s validity is so narrow that it cannot test very much of the construct” (213).

Perhaps it’s fair to say then that machine scoring within this very limited context is not the end of the world after all—since the writing the machine is scoring is as artificial as the scoring procedure itself.

Condon is an advocate (as am I) of portfolio-based assessment, but confesses that to assess students’ writing in this humane and intelligent manner, we would have to leave our robotic scoring machines behind: “No automated-scoring program can assess a portfolio: the samples are too long, the topics often differ widely, and student writers have had time to think, to work up original approaches, and to explore source materials that help promote more complex thinking” (219). He adds that human assessment allows for what is arguably the most critical component of any writing assessment: conversation about the writing. Think about that. Think about what it means to give that up.

In the end

To appreciate the implications of automated scoring, we have to imagine ourselves as writers, working long hours, revising, picturing that one good listener—that mysterious person Mem Fox always called The Watcher—waiting to read what we have written. What would you want that person to say to you about your writing? Write it down. I mean it. Take it with you next time you have writing conferences with your students. Share it with them, so they can see the humanness that underlies the writing we all do—no matter how experienced or professional we may be. Now contrast what your heart longs to hear with the “feedback” you’re likely to receive from a computer: “Good work, guest student!” (53) This would be much funnier if it weren’t real.

There’s no getting around the fact, however, that at the classroom level, responding to student writing takes enormous chunks of time. You have to more or less devote your life (or at least a big portion of it) to this endeavor: reading, responding in your mind, writing responses, meeting with students to talk writing. Richard H. Haswell concludes Chapter 4, “Automatons and Automated Scoring,” with these comments: “In all honesty, the art of getting inside the black box of the student essay is hard work. In the reading of student writing, everyone needs to be reengaged and stimulated with the difficult, which is the only path to the good, as that most hieratic of poets José Lezama Lima once said. If we do not embrace difficulty in this part of our job, easy evaluation will drive out good evaluation every time” (78).

5 Things You Can Do

  1. Oppose automated scoring. Speak out. Form a discussion group. Read one chapter from this book a week and discuss it with friends. Find out how writing samples for your state or district will be scored and be sure you approve.
  2. Advocate the scoring of writing samples by teachers—real, live, human teachers. The discussion that comes from this experience is seen by an overwhelming majority of teachers as a true learning opportunity, with lessons that translate directly into classroom practice. This approach can be made affordable through sampling—assessing a selected portion of responses.
  3. Advocate true writing assessment in which students write to self-selected topics, and develop those topics over time, with opportunities for sharing, reflection, and revision. In other words, advocate the assessment of writing, not the meaningless assessment of quick responses. For details on precisely how to set up such an assessment, see Donald Graves’ brilliant book, Testing Is Not Teaching.
  4. Offer professional development to help teachers learn how to respond effectively to students’ writing, and learn ways of teaching students how to be writing coaches, so that they can respond effectively to one another. Encourage teachers in other content areas to share responsibility for writing so that not all writing is done in English, literature, or writing classes.
  5. Share at least one part of one essay in this book with your students (regardless of age). Ask them to write an argument supporting or opposing machine scoring of student writing. Encourage them (especially older students) to do some serious research on this topic, through online articles and interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, and if possible, testing specialists. What advantages and disadvantages do they uncover?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I (Vicki) will be reviewing a delightful little book called Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. Refreshingly enough, it has nothing to do with standards or automated scoring. It has to do with the real work of becoming a writer. If you enjoyed Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I think you’ll like it. Are you thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year? We can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.



Crack the Common Core with Multigenre Writing

Fearless Writing

Fearless Writing by Tom Romano. 2013. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 194 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource text


Tom Romano is a visionary, and this is a visionary book. The very idea that students—or anyone—would write a piece combining expository, narrative, argument, poetry, and more, seems downright revolutionary in the classroom, even though it happens all the time in the world of print. Somehow, though, this kind of synthesis was ignored by the standards for writing. Check out the CCSS ( and you will see in a heartbeat how neatly packaged the umbrella genres are, as if they were mutually exclusive by nature, never meeting and never needing to meet. This book blows that myth to kingdom come, at the same time suggesting (and this IS a neat trick) that we can meet the requirements of the standards (indeed, sail right on by to more spectacular achievements) through the teaching of multigenre writing. The promise is big—and the book delivers.

Let me caution you that if you’re looking for “50 lessons on multigenre writing,” that isn’t what this book offers. True, it is packed with suggestions on how to set up and support a multigenre approach—but it is primarily a vision, as I’ve said. And as such, it offers a series of essays (each highly compelling in its own way) for seeing writing as a “big world mural, not a snapshot” (p. 18). The shortness of the book invites us to read it in one sitting, and I encourage you to do this—and then go back with your highlighter (which you will want to do).

Briefly, Romano’s vision is this: Instead of creating (methodically) a narrative piece, an expository piece, and an argument, students create a personalized form of research on a topic of their own choosing (it can be anything) that includes the following elements: preface, poetry, exposition, prose poetry (yes, he explains this), flash fiction (also explained) or nonfiction, some visual element (photo, video, drawing, etc.), a bibliography, and endnotes. Students may add other original elements too, as these occur to them—e.g., dialogue or drama. In addition—and this is key—the piece as a whole must have some sort of common thread that binds these various elements thematically. This last part is, of course, the real challenge for writers, and is the ultimate reason that Tom Romano’s vision asks so much more of writers than a mere list of standards ever could. Yes, I did say more. That’s because the Common Core Standards, while touching on many important skills, do not call for integration and synthesis. They do not ask students to use (or identify) mentor texts in order to gain insight about how the best writers write. They do not build a bridge from literature to writing. Nor do they require students to combine genres in a creative fashion, with each element supporting all others.

Romano, on the other hand, asks for inspiration, imagination, insight, and synthesis. Now there’s a standard to get excited about. He recognizes writing as volatile and unpredictable. In one of my favorite passages (and one of the most touching passages of the book), he describes the writing process of his friend, Ken Brewer, Utah’s poet laureate, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005 and had the courage to write about his experience. Brewer talks about the generative process of writing—about how writers do not know where a piece is headed until it begins to unfold and reveal itself. I love that. Clearly, Romano loves it, too. “Welcome surprises of language and meaning,” he tells us (p. 95). Throughout the book, he dares us to be braver, as teachers and as writers, than we’ve ever been. To be fearless.

Multigenre writing has long been a priority for me. It is the natural and logical way to use research, and enriches the reading experience immeasurably. This is a profoundly important book. Following are just some of the features that make Romano’s book special—there are many more.


Special Features

  1. Emphasis on poetry. This book could well have been titled The Power of Poetry to Influence Instruction. Talk about common threads. Poetry pops up everywhere, both as an integral part of the whole multigenre vision and as a literary foundation for learning to write well. Romano quotes from poems he loves (some written by his students) and references others he hopes we’ll explore (Have a pencil handy as you read). He talks about opening his class with poetry, and reading aloud constantly to create a treasure trove of language in students’ minds. “My purpose is to get the great language of our best writers into people’s bones,” he says (p. 91).
  2. Definition of multigenre writing. Chapter 3 is only a paragraph long, comprising the whole definition—and so I cannot very well quote it here. It’s a thoughtful definition, complete and articulate. Romano requests that each element within the piece (for purposes of this assignment) be self-contained, “making a point of its own” (p. 8). I think it’s worth noting that while that works (and instructionally, is probably essential) within the classroom context, some of the best professional multigenre writing seamlessly blends narrative and informational text. And such writing can help students gain a deeper understanding of how multiple genres work in a coordinated way. Examples that come to mind are Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book Seabiscuit, any writing by the great naturalist and author Sy Montgomery (have a look at Birdology), and most recently, a book destined to become legendary: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Each of these books transitions beautifully from story to exposition to research. I recall a chapter from Birdology, for instance, in which Sy Montgomery explains how hummingbirds hover, fly backwards, and even fly upside down—then tells the story of capturing live food to keep a one and a half inch hummer alive. You can probably think of many more examples from your own reading. If you’re looking for something shorter that you could use as an example for your students, consider National Geographic Magazine. The September 2013 issue contains two articles that beautifully combine research with narrative: “Rising Seas” by Tim Folger and “Big Bird” by Olivia Judson. Both contain unforgettable details—and show the stunning power of the visual (in this case, photos) to carry meaning.
  3. Profound respect for story. The Hawaiians have a saying—to “talk story.” This is one of those expressions that cannot be readily explained because its meaning is simultaneously vast and intimate. It covers conversations both light and deep—personal history, current happenings, plans, events, wishes, hopes, dreams. The Hawaiian culture recognizes that the “story” of where you came from, what you remember and love and treasure, who your family is, and how you spend your days is ultimately the story of you. “Story” is more than narrative. It is the core of all writing, which begins with the expression of personal feelings and knowledge, and gradually expands like circles in the pond to encompass an ever expanding universe. In Chapter 17, “Crafting Narrative,” Romano explains eloquently how as humans we crave more than raw data. We need story to pull us in, make us care, help us understand. “Story carries the multigenre load,” he says. The hard work in multigenre writing “is done by story, tale telling” (p. 77). In a time when so many people are rushing to the altars of informational writing and argument and trampling narrative in their haste to show proper devotion to “real writing,” these words bring relief, comfort, and new hope. It’s ridiculous to highlight a whole chapter. Otherwise, I’d highlight all of Chapter 17. Thank you, Tom.
  4. Examples. The book is rich with examples. Further, Romano explains that he has his own students read examples of multigenre papers before they set out to write one on their own. As teaching strategies go, this is brilliant. Too often, we expect students (or other readers) to figure out for themselves what we mean by strong analysis, research, or argument—or in this case, a creative blend of multiple genres. Why make them guess? In Chapter 12, Romano explains how he uses a film (Ken Burns’ Jazz) to further illustrate what multigenre is all about. I was struck by the genius of this approach. Film is in itself a new genre—but then, to help students discover the multigenre parallels that link film to writing . . . now, that is truly clever.
  5. The assignment itself. Not every teacher who comes up with a terrific and vibrant idea (such as assigning a multigenre project) will share it with others literally, in its entirety, just as it’s given to students. But there it is—in Chapter 11, “The Many Ways of Multigenre,” in Tom’s own voice-filled language. It’s beautifully laid out, and clearly challenging. Same old, same old isn’t going to cut it. Romano also shares students’ reactions to this assignment when they first encounter it—they’re intrigued to be sure, but often also terrified. No wonder. Freedom (choose your own topic, weave genres together in your own way) is a scary thing. We sometimes forget, those of us who detest anything that smacks of formula, how reassuring formula can be to those who find writing intimidating. Original writing is a hike through the wilderness with—if you’re lucky—a good pair of shoes and a compass. Even if you don’t get lost, it feels like you might—but that unexplored territory keeps calling you. Formula is a well-worn overstuffed chair in the corner with a remote control on the arm. So familiar. So safe. So . . . dull.
  6. Finding topics—and planning the research. In Chapter 13, “Tilling the Garden,” Romano offers ideas for helping students explore potential ideas—and then beginning to put those ideas together. If you’re a methods person, this is your chapter, and you’ll probably breathe a big sigh of relief as you begin to read it. Finally! The specifics! Those early philosophical discussions, however, are essential to helping us understand why and how this assignment works. Recalling his own years as a student, Romano tells us, “We didn’t talk in class about such grubby matters as searching out ideas” (p. 52). He teaches differently—and in a lively and engaging discussion, shows how he helps students discover their own passions. Admittedly, students are not always aware they are passionate about anything—at least anything they can write about—and so this part of the “tilling” is essential. But hold onto your hats because the second part of this chapter is even better. Herein, Romano shows us very clearly and concisely how to help students craft a research design. It’s such a fine plan, both logical and imaginative, that even professional writers will sit up and take notice. For me, it’s no exaggeration to say that if the book were a pamphlet and only included this section, I’d still consider it worth the money. My favorite part of the bigger plan is the required pre-bibliography (my term), which specifies sources the writer plans to research to find information. This is a simple deviation from the usual research plan, but it requires students to think: Where can I find information to answer my questions? Where should I look that someone might not immediately think of? What sources can I trust?
  7.  Daring to be innovative. Chapter 25,
    “Innovative Genres,” explores other ways to share information—through music or video or an artistically crafted chart. Romano admits to being essentially a “word man,” who was previously resistant to the power of photos or other media to carry meaning that words alone cannot. Good teachers change their minds, though, when the reasons are compelling. It is impossible any longer to live in a “words only” world. Sharing information in multiple ways comes naturally to most young writers, as social media attest. I like the way Romano consistently invites his students to break with tradition, to explore, to invent, to try what was previously forbidding, to be in effect writing outlaws.
  8. The dreaded rubrics. Chapter 29, “Evaluation and Learning,” is fascinating to me for several reasons. Tom Romano is a man who is not (to say the very least) comfortable with rubrics. My friends and colleagues will be surprised to hear me say that I sympathize totally with his misgivings. Rubrics are dangerous. Many (if not most) are badly written, filled with inconsistencies and vague language, and subject to misinterpretation. In the hands of literalists they’re often wielded as weapons, and the negative language many contain can be crushing to student writers. In my own work (Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers), I’ve replaced the original rubrics with writing guides, which are subject to continual revision by both teachers and students, who discuss together the goals they want to set for themselves. The word “guide” suggests that the language in this document should help students understand what makes for good writing—and what pitfalls to avoid. Whether you love rubrics or hate them, Romano’s chapter reinforces several long-held beliefs about rubrics—or writing guides: (1) They need to be developed over time and with constant, recurring reference to authentic student work (No rubric is ever finished); (2) The greatest value of any rubric lies not in its use, but in its creation, because in designing such a document, we’re forced to come face to face with what we believe; and (3) Any rubric (or writing guide) is ultimately most useful to the person or group that designs it. In other words, if you want a good rubric that will serve your purposes and your students well, design your own. If you don’t, you’ll always resent the word or phrase that binds you to something you don’t believe, or keeps you from shouting “Hallelujah!” when a paper delights you for reasons the rubric somehow forgot to mention. No rubric covers everything; in my experience, even the best of them wind up omitting something critical simply because no one can anticipate all the wonders that await us in good writing.
  9. Comments on the Standards. Chapter 32, “What’s Right and Wrong with the Standards for Writing” is one of the most cogent and revealing essays ever. Perhaps, like me, you’ve looked through the Standards and wondered why you couldn’t love them more when clearly so much of the content is sensible, useful, and even based on common sense. Why then aren’t we more excited? This chapter will help you get to the heart of what’s missing for many teachers. It’s a chapter I suspect you’ll read again and again. I know I will.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for stopping by—I highly recommend Tom Romano’s Fearless Writing and hope you’ll read it at your first opportunity. I also hope you will seriously entertain the many advantages of multigenre writing, and ask yourself if you could make this work in your classroom.

Jeff has been out doing workshops (as those who were in his sessions know already), and so is still working on his latest book review—but it’s coming!

A special tip: Do you think America’s students are over-assessed? Are we obsessed with testing, with data, with driving students to higher achievement levels regardless of the cost? If you think so, we encourage you to explore a new film:

Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, quality assessment, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.