Category: Uncategorized


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

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

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

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


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

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

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

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


Everything That Matters

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

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


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

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

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

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

Organization Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Margot’s Role

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

Hidden Gems

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

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


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

 To get the book on Amazon:

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

To see Steve’s newsletter:

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

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


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

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

London . . . and Letters

Happy New Year! (from Vicki)

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2016. It’s good to be back—back writing for Gurus, and back from a trip that proved to be one of the most fulfilling ever.

We’re going!

Last summer, my husband and I quite impulsively decided to sign up for a maiden voyage that would take us from Southampton to Miami in late fall. Crossing the Atlantic in November? What could go wrong? It honestly didn’t even occur to me to be apprehensive. Yet, I was truly amazed by the number of friends who felt compelled to remind us what had happened to the Titanic. I guess they thought we didn’t know—and that once we found out, we would reconsider. Not a chance. The cruise proved to be delightful—neither frightening nor dangerous (and even included some startlingly warm weather)—but the bonus for me was the dazzling five days we spent London, anticipating the cruise and seeing the sights. Samuel Johnson once said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. I think to anyone who’s been there, those words will ring true. Here are just a few highlights from an all-too-quick five days.

Home Base

We stayed at a hotel called the W, located just north of Trafalgar Square, adjacent to Chinatown. The W is flanked by casinos, coffee houses, and a candy store the size of Macy’s. Hence, the sidewalks swarm with foot traffic night and day. It doesn’t look like a hotel at all, so unless you’re a registered guest, you could very well walk right by, searching for the entrance. In a city of brick and stone, the W is wrapped in a silvery blue cocoon of frosted glass that makes it look less like a hotel and more like something out of Dr. Zhivago. The location—well, unless you can afford to be right smack on the Thames—is ideal. It’s within walking distance of countless favorite tourist destinations, restaurants, shops, wine bars, parks, and more.

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Inside, the W is beautifully decorated, and spotlessly clean. It is run by some of the friendliest and most courteous hotel staff I’ve ever encountered. The Brits have impeccable manners. What’s distinctive about this hotel, however, is that it caters—according to the staff members themselves, who shared this in a conspiratorial whisper—to Millennials. I didn’t know quite what this meant or why they felt they had to share this insider’s knowledge until I stepped into our room. Ah. Contemporary doesn’t do it justice. It’s right out of Star Trek. The room is tiny and makes maximum use of space, so shelves and cubby holes abound, though they’re often camouflaged, and most furniture serves dual functions. A chair might double as a cupboard. The artwork and lamps are interchangeable. If it doesn’t glow, it’s probably art. The snack bar is a barrel. Think about it. Round shapes hold more. Mirrors everywhere create the illusion of spaciousness, and although this definitely works, it can be disarming to see yourself continuously. The bed is low, so it helps if you haven’t been cheating on your yoga. The lights and heating/cooling are all run from a central panel right by the entry. You want to practice before going to bed because it’s easy to get up at 3, feel your way to the panel, hit the wrong button, and instantly transform the entire room into a blinding display.

That's right--this IS the shower.

That’s right–this IS the shower.

There is no bathroom. Oh, there are facilities—they just aren’t located in a room. The toilet is in one tiny closet with a door that swings open. If you’re modest, well, you need to get over it—or maybe just write “occupied” on a Post-It and slap it on the mirrored door. The light is on a timer, and you have only two minutes from the time you swing the door open before the light goes out. That’s fast. And let me say, it gets very dark in there. The shower is in the adjacent closet. Or, to be more precise: The adjacent closet IS a shower. The closet door IS the shower door. Towels hang from a center island—right smack in the middle of the dressing/eating/hair-styling/living/sitting area. You step out of the shower into the midst of everything and drip your way to the towel rod—hoping anyone sitting there is a good buddy.

Face it. We’re boomers, my husband and I. We love cozy corners with fuzzy throws and books, lights you can turn on and off from your reading chair, bathrooms with doors, and towels you can reach without waving hello to the company. Somehow, I think the W folks knew all that. But never mind. Though my vision of luxury is different from that of the W designers, travel is much more about adventure than about comfort—or at least it should be. Plumbing that works, clean quarters, comfortable bed, courteous staff. Check, check, check, check. I’ll go back to the W any time I get the chance. W staff, thanks for an incredibly good (and comic) time.

Big Red

Of course, out-and-about London is where the real fun begins. We rode the Big Red Bus on the long tour, and enjoyed every second—even though passengers who heard us going “Ahhhhhh!” might have thought differently. We sat in the front seat, which allowed us to see how perilously close our bus was coming not only to other buses, but to cars, bikers, and pedestrians as well. Maybe an inch really is as good as a mile. At any rate, the native Londoners never looked alarmed, which was reassuring, so we got quieter as the ride went on.

Crossing London Bridge

Crossing London Bridge

The narrative on the bus is fascinating. We learned, among other things, that the Brits of old, while still mannerly, could also be a bloody bunch, routinely hanging people in public, sometimes hundreds on a given day. Each condemned man or woman was allowed to make a farewell speech, though no cursing or defamation of royalty was allowed—as that would be unseemly. Perhaps the best thing about the Big Red Bus is that you can hop on and off at will, making it easily the cheapest, fastest way to get to points of interest, such as the Tower of London, Abbey Road, or St. Paul’s Cathedral.


A Touch of Shakespeare

How can you visit London without seeing Shakespeare’s Globe Theater? We couldn’t. It’s not the original, naturally—that burned in 1613. But it’s a striking new edition, located just blocks from where the original stood, and authentic inside and out, with the same heavy beams, winding wooden stairways, open air balconies, and majestic front-and-center stage visible from everywhere. Tours are led by members of the Globe acting company, who are incredibly well informed, animated, responsive to all comments and questions, and (at least in our case, with Kristin) hilariously funny.

IMG_1955Kristin informed us that the original theater had no restrooms. Remarkably, no one saw the need. They drank flagons of beer, however, since admission to the theater was only a penny, and for a penny more you could get a drink. Or you could bring your own and really economize. Those who stood on the ground in front of the stage (and that was the majority of viewers) simply relieved themselves on the spot—which of course, made for damp, malodorous conditions. Lavender, thyme, and other fragrant herbs were scattered abundantly to help compensate.

Perhaps the world's most iconic stage.

Perhaps the world’s most iconic stage.

How many people were injured when the original Globe burned? Kristin had us all guessing, but none of us were correct. The answer is none. Not one soul. However, three cloaks were burned and that made the London papers the following morning. Clothing was extraordinarily valuable in the 1600s. One poor fellow’s britches caught fire also, but he was quickly doused with beer—and luckily, that moment of indignity saved both him and the britches.

Open air--so it's closed October to May. Alas!

Open air–so it’s closed October to May. Alas!








Wine, Candles, Kipling, and Dickens

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

On the recommendation of our good friend and my co-author, Jeff Hicks, we took time to seek out Gordon’s Wine Bar (, located off Trafalgar Square, just up from the Thames River. Jeff had assured us that visiting here was less about wine than about the experience, and he couldn’t have been more right (even though the wine list is long enough to rival a phone directory). To enter, you go down rather steep stairs, and at first you cannot see a thing—including your feet. The whole place (except for the bar itself, which boasts one dim light) is lit by candles—small, well-used ones at that—so it takes some time for your eyes to adjust. Gordon’s is a cave, basically. It’s mostly stone—ceiling, walls, and floor, though there are a few wooden walls decorated with print memorabilia, some quite old.

IMG_1979The place opened in 1890, and is situated in Kipling House, home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680s. Both Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton are said to have written some of their works in the bar’s little parlor. It’s easy to imagine writers getting inspired in this place. Owners now describe it as Dickensian, but Alexandre Dumas also comes to mind. It is deliciously, irresistibly atmospheric, with funky wooden tables and chairs, none of them matching. Ceilings are low, and hazardous to those over 5’10”. I held my breath as one fairly tall, bald gentleman strolled happily by juggling several full glasses of wine.

If you enjoy good cheese, this is definitely your haunt. They boast numerous varieties (brie, chevre, dambuster, taleggio, Cotswold, gouda, cheddar, emmentaler, gruyere—my personal favorite—stilton, gorgonzola, and camembert, among others) and are happy to help you pair just the right wine with your selections. We came for lunch, so two slices of cheese sounded about right. Little did we know that at Gordon’s a “slice” is four ounces. And did I mention it comes with a small loaf of French bread? No one leaves hungry. In fact, if you clean your plate, it can be hard to leave at all. (We very nearly missed the production of “Wicked.” We had to run most of the way, which was cursedly uncomfortable, but probably in the end a good idea.) Gordon’s does not accept reservations, so it’s best to arrive on time. We got there just as the doors opened and for a few quiet minutes had our pick of inviting tables—all of which seemed to be tucked into cozy corners. Within less than an hour the place was packed and laughter was echoing off the stone walls. Thanks, Jeff, for one of the best recommendations ever.


What Acrophobia?

These days, any trip to London demands riding on the London Eye, one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels.

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

Lines are long, but if you reserve ahead, you can skip right to the reception desk and pick up your ticket—definitely the way to go. We did the champagne tour, which was more than worth the extra money. Instead of standing in a long queue, we waited in a beautiful lounge on a comfy couch, and were then escorted right through the crowds and onto the Eye.

The wheel never stops unless someone requires assistance getting on, so you step right on as it’s moving—thankfully, at a slow pace. It takes a half hour to do one rotation, and that’s the whole ride unless you make special arrangements. Each gondola is like a huge glass egg in a metal frame, and holds about 25 people, though our group included only 15 or so, making it easy to move about and take pictures. Seating is available in the center, but only those with the most acute acrophobia could tear themselves away from the spectacular views. Most of us were pressed right against the glass for the full half hour, as our guide Elvis pointed out various landmarks.

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

At the very top, you perch 450 feet above the Thames. From there, you can see nearly 30 miles in all directions. Several friends had told me they would never take this ride because they’re afraid of heights. Actually, the ride is both exhilarating and relaxing—and moves at such a leisurely pace that when you view the wheel from the Westminster Bridge, you can barely see it move. I was only fully aware of any motion as the ride neared its finish and I dreaded getting off. Gondolas are available for rent (two hours, or four rotations) to anyone wanting to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion . . . just saying, in case my husband is reading this . . .


Some Thoughts About Letters

Over the holidays, you may have spent some time thinking of what to give someone you love. It seems to me that one of the most thoughtful and personal of all gifts is also among the simplest—a letter.

This year, I received a number of letters, including a few form letters, but many emailed, typed, or handwritten just to me. Some were just a few lines—others went on for pages. They were filled with anecdotes, humorous moments, recipes (!), words of encouragement, and surprises. Each was a gift. Sue’s family had just welcomed two new grandchildren, while Becky’s was expecting the newest family member any day. Donna’s photos of her granddaughter (18 months) applying lipstick for the first time had me laughing uproariously. Leila made my mouth water as she described the elaborate Hawaiian and Japanese food she’d be cooking up for a holiday party. Bob and Kathie had just moved. Susan had a new job. Gail and Bill had adopted a rescue dog they named Boxit—because she’s been abused and so “boxes” herself in corners to feel safe. I wish them—and Boxit—all the best. And Sally wrote an inspiring letter, encouraging me to travel more, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s words: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Those words hung round me brighter than a golden necklace all holiday season, and made me feel as if I could go—well, anywhere. Isn’t that how great teachers always make you feel?Letters

Letter writing in the classroom is enjoying a hearty revival, and one I welcome because it is among the best ways to encourage voice. Here in Central Oregon, middle school students are participating in the Great American Mail Race. Language Arts students in Becky Aylor’s classes have written to more than 180 schools across the country—just this year. Some have written to students as far away as Greece, Turkey, Germany, and even China. They write their drafts longhand, then word process final drafts with help from 1:1 Chromebook and a computer program called Google Translate that can, with the click of a button, translate English text into any of numerous languages.

According to Aylor, the purpose of the race is to see who can receive the most responses—or a response from farthest away. As might be expected, the project not only increases students’ interest in writing, but also prompts discussions about geography, history, culture, and other topics. For many students (and this shouldn’t surprise us, really), this is the first encounter with the art of letter writing. They’ve never written one—never received one, either. They talk about basics like how to write an address properly, but also deeper concerns, like the value of a letter to the recipient.*

So . . . just a thought as we begin 2016. Lots of you will no doubt make holiday resolutions—save more money, work out routinely, read more . . . lose weight! All noble goals. But here’s one resolution you can keep for sure, with the knowledge it will touch someone’s life. Write at least one heart-felt letter to someone, anyone, who might love to receive it (and that’s nearly everybody). It is one of the truest ways to show love, friendship, compassion, or concern. It only takes a little time. And in this day of quick texting, an honest to goodness letter you can hold in your hands is a real treasure.

A few decades ago, a wise man named Garrison Keillor wrote an essay called “How to Write a Letter” (easy to find online, and well worth the search). In the long-gone days when writing assessment was an actual human activity, I used to read that essay aloud to raters who understood that students, like letter writers, were giving of themselves by putting their words on paper, and that such gifts must be honored. I especially loved Keillor’s closing remarks—“Probably your friend will put your letter away, and it’ll be read again a few years from now—and it will improve with age. And forty years from now your friend’s grandkids will dig it out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient eighties that gives them a sudden clear glimpse of you and her and the world we old-timers knew. You will then have created an object of art. Your simple lines about where you went, who you saw, what they said, will speak to those children and they will feel in their hearts the humanity of our times.”


* If you’d like more details about the Great Race project, please check, and search “Keeping letter writing alive in Sisters.” Special thanks to Correspondent Erin Borla, from whose November 25 article this information was taken.


Reading Recommendations

This is a new feature we’ll be including with most posts in 2016. Books listed here are not ones we’ll be reviewing on Gurus. They’re just recommended for your own personal, leisurely reading—and we urge you to look them up online for more information or to see what other readers have said:

  • The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Jeff is keeping busy teaching 5th graders and also teaching middle school math just for variety. We can be sure he’s also reading, however, so he’ll soon have books to share.

If you’ve ever attended any of my workshops, you’re likely a fan of Sneed Collard. I toted many of Sneed’s outstanding nonfiction books (Animal Dads, Pocket Babies, The Deep Sea Floor, and others) from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Hawaii. Those familiar with Sneed’s incredible body of work will be pleased to know that I will be reviewing his new autobiography Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. If you’re not a fan yet, please take time to look him up online or on Amazon. The sheer volume of his writing is impressive—and will make you look forward to discovering how this talented writer got his inspiration.Sneed portrait

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We are gaining new fans all the time, and we have you to thank! Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

We’re BACK!

That’s right! Our summer hiatus is coming to an end, and Gurus kicks off the 2014/2015 school year with a brand new post THURSDAY, August 21. We’ll suggest 6 POWERFUL THINGS YOU CAN DO ON DAY 1 of your writing class. Please check us out!

Meantime, our sincere thanks to all the loyal fans who continued visiting us over the summer, catching up on earlier posts they missed. Thanks also to the many people who joined our following and signed up to get notices each time we published. We appreciate each and every one of you!

We hope you had a good summer break, and we look forward to seeing you tomorrow.
Jeff & Vicki




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.



images-4         Welcome back to Sixtraitgurus! We hope you had a restful, relaxing holiday break and were able to spend important time with family and friends. We thought it would be an inspiring way to kick off 2014 by hearing from a different voice, in particular, the voice of a student reader and writer.

Alejandro S., who self identifies as Hispanic, is a senior at a high school here in Beaverton, Oregon (where I, Jeff, live). He has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts about his experiences as a student, his interests in reading and writing (a couple of things we at STG care deeply about), and his post-high school plans. What follows is the text of a speech Alejandro was asked to give at the Oregon Leadership Network’s 2013 Fall Leadership Institute on December 3rd in Portland, Oregon. The OLN ( “…is the only statewide educational leadership network in the nation with equity at its core. It seeks to expand and transform the knowledge, will, skill, and capacity of educational leadership to focus on issues of educational equity so each student can achieve at the highest level.” Alejandro’s speech was delivered to an audience of hundreds of educators from over twenty Oregon school districts and ESDs. During a session called Realizing Dreams and Aspirations Through Student Voice, he and several other students shared their honest feelings about school, what their teachers could do to help them, and about what they perceived as their personal challenges or barriers to success.

imagesAlejandro’s Speech

Hello! My name is Alejandro, and just like any other student, I have aspirations for my future. One of them is to become a writer and have my work published and spread throughout the world for people to enjoy, as well as to learn from.

A couple things I’m doing to help realize this goal is that I’m reading everyday and writing any chance I get; it’s even a part of my senior project. I’m going to write a collection of short stories and self-publish it. But another goal I have is to become a teacher. I believe that teaching is the best way to lead young people to success and a better future for everyone. As a senior, I’m very nervous and anxious for what happens next, but I know that being a teacher is what I need to be. That’s why I’m going to apply to the Portland Teachers Program ( because of the opportunities this will present to me, and because I know this program will better equip me with the skills, qualities, and values needed for me to succeed and better educate students.

I’ve also had to face challenges along the way. A specific challenge happened when I was in middle school and I had received a good grade on a paper I had done. The teacher handed me the paper and said, “You actually did well”. This was the first time I realized the real power behind language—that language could be used in a negative or positive way. That one word, Actually, was said to me with so many insinuations and expectations on how the teacher believed I would progress in school based on my background.

Another challenge I’ve had to face came from my fellow classmates, students themselves. While many students looked at the good grades I’ve gotten with shock, the kids from my same background also look at me differently. They expect me to be a stereotype—to hate school and do poorly. The word “white wash” has been said to me many times, even from people I don’t know. So I’ve had to face this challenge and decide whether I want to be a stereotype and act the way society has invented a person of my background to act and be accepted by everyone, or divert from that social construct and just be me and do the best I can to get the most out of my education. It took a while and a lot of thinking, but I will always choose what’s best for me and not let others ignorant comments or perspectives dictate the way I should act.

Although I might see education as an important way for me to succeed, many other students don’t see it the same way. They see it as a system that’s against them, a system that doesn’t care about them as much as it does the white students, so they decide to give up. I know they feel this way because I’ve talked to these types of kids, and because I used to feel the same way. I still feel that the system is more flawed than we admit it is, but it’s because of the many great teachers who dismiss this system and teach in a way that enables students to succeed, that gives me hope that we can create change and progress for all students.

There are things that you as educators can do to help kids feel differently about school and better appreciate it. One important thing I would say is to get to know your students better on a personal level. Ask them exactly what we are talking about today. Ask them to write you a paper on how they really feel about school and what you can do to help them make school more enjoyable and important to them. And there is another thing. I’ve noticed with many of the students today that they don’t like to read. They get a book assigned in class and they immediately groan and perceive the book is bad before even turning one page. I’ve noticed it with many of my friends, and it’s really a shame. It’s a shame because reading is an important foundation, an important first step to success. Reading in itself is a different language, one that we can “master” but never stop learning about. It’s also what has motivated me to speak to you today.

When you read, you’re reading about the world and people’s experiences. Reading allows you to expand your mind with new ideas and forces you to support or challenge what it says. It’s also a very important step to success because after reading, comes writing. When you write you create your own ideas from your experiences from reading. You see the world in a different light and although it doesn’t seem like it, writing allows you to be heard and create change. And that’s what teachers today have to do, present reading in a different and creative light that will interest students.

Because when you read about the world, you then write about the world, which leads to speaking to the world, and this allows you to change the world. And that is my ultimate goal and aspiration, to change the world in the classroom as a future educator and to change the world as a future writer.

A Bit More About Alejandro

I recently sat down with Alejandro to attempt to mine a bit more gold from the mind of this amazing young man. Here are some of the questions I asked and some nuggets from his answers.


What’s the inspiration for your interest in reading?

My mom was a single parent and worked a lot. I don’t remember her reading to me much, but there was a volunteer at my elementary school, who read with me and gave me books to read. In middle school, I would get books from the school library—I chose a lot of books because of their covers and if they were popular. I would stay up late reading, sometimes until midnight. I saw the Stephen King movie, It, then decided to read the book. It was my first really big book. I didn’t know you could write a scary story and still have it be about real life or important social issues. I learned that I liked horror, sci-fi, and dystopian novels. When I was a freshman, I read Fahrenheit 451 and was dumfounded. The same things happened with 1984. I learned to read things twice, the first time to enjoy it and the second time to learn. One of my teachers said literature is asking questions without getting the answer, and I like thinking that way when I read.

images-5 What’s the inspiration for your interest in writing?

Well, like I said in my speech, after reading comes writing. It’s the best way to express yourself and speak to people and get your ideas out in the world. I’m going to be a teacher and I want to be able to help my students succeed. I want them to know that I’m a reader and a writer, too.


What is your message to teachers about helping students become more interested in reading and writing?

The main thing for students, especially middle school students, is to be engaging. You can’t just tell a student to read a book by a certain day. You have to get them talking about the book, like in a Socratic seminar, where you are the guide, but they’re thinking and talking with each other and their ideas count. When they write about the books and their ideas later, it’s more like they’re speaking to someone.

Final Note

I hope you are as impressed (and inspired) as I am by Alejandro’s words. Think about all the fortunate students who will one day walk into his classroom and be energized by his passion. If you would like to ask Alejandro a question or comment on his speech, send it to me here at STG, and I will pass it along to him. I know he would greatly appreciate the feedback.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I managed to get quite a bit of reading done over the holidays, and I’m planning on sharing a few of my favorites over the next couple of posts. Here are some titles for you to explore in advance: Winger by Andrew Smith, Around the World by Matt Phelan, Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M. Schaefer, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices by Theoni Pappas, and Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.

2014 is upon us, and if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year (or getting geared up  for the next), 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 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.

wt10_7     CW6 Cover

Conventions are BIG in the Common Core
Get ready. Conventions receive significant emphasis within the Common Core Standards, and are likely to play a major role in upcoming assessments relating to those standards. Students will not only need to be in conventional control of their own writing, but will also need to be proficient editors of any text we might throw at them. How do we get them there? Order more red pens? Maybe not . . .

Correcting ALL Errors: NOT the Best Choice
Chances are, you can look back on your own experience as a student (particularly if you’re over 30), and recall the old-school approach to “teaching” conventions: elaborate, meticulous red-penning of errors. If you’ve ever been subjected to this approach, you can probably recall how it felt—and how enthusiastic it made you feel about writing. Granted, there are those exceptional students out there who not only take time to correct every single error, but also look up all pertinent rules for future reference—using those well-worn handbooks they keep by their beds. Hm . . . right. Most of us have never met these wonder students, yet their legend lives on. And the red ink keeps flowing. Why? Well, think about it: This was the approach modeled for most of us. Many teachers (even those who question the value of error hunts) simply don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, despite the incredible amount of time and effort required, line by line correction (unless specifically requested by the writer) almost never pays off. Here’s why:

1. It creates a sense of hopelessness among students who struggle with conventions. Getting this sort of response to one’s writing is like having strangers walk into your house and begin remodeling. What can be perceived as a kind of assault may trigger hurtfulness, resentment, indifference—or alienation. The odds of an over-marked paper surviving a trip past the nearest trash can are small indeed. Of course, if you have a student who is conventionally skilled (a natural born editor), and you mark one kind of error—say, use of quotation marks—that student may actually welcome your suggestions. But the student who struggles with spelling, grammar, capitals, punctuation, and paragraphing cannot possibly absorb the 20 or more “suggestions” his or her paper calls for. A student who feels overwhelmed is likely to think, “I can’t write,” and just give up.

2. It isn’t enough. Correcting is not teaching, and we kid ourselves when we assume it is. Students learn next to nothing from simple, quick corrections that lack any explanation or suggestion of how to approach editing differently next time. “How many times do I need to correct this error?” I hear teachers ask. The answer? Every time it appears—forever. Do you want to sign up for that? If not, be a teacher, not an editor. Writers (even professionals) who are given a choice quickly become dependent on editors, and have little incentive to notice, learn about, or correct mistakes the editor will fix anyway.

3. Once you identify errors, the hard part is done. The ONLY way students become proficient with conventions is by doing their own editing and developing what Jeff and I call “an editor’s eye.” This refers to the ability to spot things like a misspelled word or missing word or letter, misused or omitted punctuation, faulty subject-verb connection, and so forth. Developing such an eye takes a lifetime of practice. That’s why it’s difficult to find any publication (novels, newspapers, textbooks, whatever) that’s error-free. Each time you do the identifying for your students, you rob them of one more opportunity to practice developing that editor’s eye that is critical to conventional proficiency.

4. It’s too time consuming. You don’t have time to be an editor for 30 to 180 students. The time you spend correcting would be much better spent developing editing lessons or searching literature for models you can use to teach excellent use of conventions. And most important of all . . .

5. It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. In fact, research (See George Hillocks, The Testing Trap, 2002; Hillocks, Research on Written Composition, 1985; Vicki Spandel, Creating Writers 6/e, 2013; Carl Nagin and the National Writing Project, Because Writing Matters, 2003; Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined, 2005) indicates overwhelmingly that students subjected to extensive marking of errors may actually decline in editorial skill. We cannot afford to have that happen.

So—What DOES Work?
Many things. Here we offer just 12 suggestions to help you turn your students into confident, capable editors. (And by the way, no guilt trips allowed. When you stop correcting everything, you are NOT showing that you don’t care about conventions. On the contrary. You are shifting your focus from errors to students. You are showing that churning out perfect copy is a lower priority than coaching your students to become strong, independent editors—like you.)

Suggestion 1
Explore the “why” behind conventions. An easy way to do this is by removing all punctuation and spacing from a piece of text, and ignoring rules of spelling and grammar. See how long it takes your students to decode a piece like this:


Can you decipher it? Of course. You’re a teacher. You can read anything, right? But imagine if everything you read were written this way. Reading would be quite a chore. The very term “conventions” implies the conventional, traditional, or accepted way of doing things. Good writers break rules all the time. But following most traditions most of the time (e.g., writing left to right, putting spaces between words) makes reading easier. In a very real sense, editing is a courtesy. You make your text comfortable for readers just as you might make your home comfortable for guests.

Suggestion 2
Develop a routine. Editing and writing are related (like swimming and diving), but are NOT the same skill, and teaching one will not necessarily increase proficiency in the other. Instructional time must be devoted to editing per se. But—isn’t it enough to have students edit what they write? No. It sounds like a good plan, but unfortunately, most students don’t write anywhere near enough text to become proficient editors simply by correcting their own work—even if they do so regularly and carefully. In addition, they need daily practice editing text that is not their own. This is important for a couple of reasons: (1) as just noted, it extends editing practice, and (2) we are all much more ruthless when attacking something we ourselves did not write. Remember the words of H. G. Wells, who reminded us that “no passion on earth is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Take advantage of this impulse. Give students “someone else’s draft” to work on (preferably an anonymous someone, not another student from your class). Keep the practice short: about 50-100 words of text (depending on students’ age), not overloaded with errors (See Suggestion 4 for guidelines on this). Create lessons students can finish in ten minutes or less. Double space copy so students have ROOM to edit; or, if possible, put editing lessons right on the computer. And don’t be seduced by those speedy one-sentence “daily” lessons; they’re far too short, and most are irrelevant to students’ current editing needs—which means, in a nutshell, that students will tune out.

Suggestion 3
Identify problems your students are having right now. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. You can identify problems by skimming through a stack of your own students’ papers and creating for yourself a list of 10 (very manageable), 15 (still do-able), or 20 (that’s plenty) of the most frequently recurring errors. Zero in on those.

Note: Andrea Lunsford, Professor of English at Stanford University, has identified the 20 most common kinds of errors in English writing (see Easy Writer, 3rd edition, 2009). Find Lunsford’s book if you can; or look up her list by searching under “20 most common errors in English.” This kind of focused instruction will benefit your students far more than 60 random lessons developed by someone who doesn’t know your students and has never looked at their writing. (Suggestion: If you work with older writers—say, grades 6 and up—share the list itself with them, too.)

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples. The second part involves practice, a chance for students to apply what they’ve just learned in editing faulty text. Such text (again, think 50 to 100 words) should contain at least three (and for older students, as many as ten or more) errors relating to the concept at hand. (The paragraph you just read is 103 words long, not counting this sentence.)

Following direct instruction in the concept, give students a few minutes to edit the faulty text on their own—then a minute or two to check with a partner to see if any errors were missed. At this point, I like to tell students how many errors they are looking for. Students who have found, say, five out of ten have a reason to go back for another look. When everyone has finished (remember, keep the time short), ask students to coach you as you edit the piece on a Smart board or document projector. Provide this kind of practice as often as you can possibly fit it in. You will see a marked difference in students’ editing skills.

Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources.

Question: What happens when students have had practice with ALL the recurring errors you’ve identified for the class? Answer: Create new editing lessons based on additional problems you’ve identified, or lessons that combine several kinds of errors—with two or three of each kind. You might also have students take turns designing editing lessons, and leading the discussion that follows.

Suggestion 5
Pull anonymous problem sentences from students’ current writing. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having. Share these sentences on the board. This is an excellent way to kick off a writing class, and takes about five minutes. (Let students know you plan to do this, so you know they feel comfortable having their writing shared in this way—you need not use names.)

Ask students to confer with partners about what they notice, then coach you as you edit each sentence. Be sure to let them know if they miss anything. As a teacher, I found this strategy extremely effective because—somewhat to my surprise, I confess—students waited eagerly at the beginning of each class to see if their writing would be chosen as an instructional model. I was very concerned about not making anyone feel picked on, but I needn’t have worried. No one to my knowledge ever felt self-conscious in the least. What did happen, however, was a dramatically heightened interest in every lesson because the examples were coming from them. This was perceived as real, immediate, useful information because it was personal—and current.

Suggestion 6
Look to literature. In the 1800s and far into the 1900s for that matter, many teachers began their instruction in conventions by sharing a rule—often stated in language no one could understand. No wonder most rules were never internalized, and those that were, were quickly forgotten. But, we’ve come a long way, baby. We know now that one of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice—or any trait: through literary examples.

Here are just a few, and they’re diverse. Normally, when you’re teaching one convention—say the use of semicolons or dashes—you’ll want several examples because there are nuances of usage that rules simply don’t cover. You might collect three sentences containing semicolons, for example. Share them aloud, one at a time, but also write them out. Then discuss them. As you do so, the question to ask students is this: What difference does this [convention] make? Open-ended discussion encourages students to look and listen closely, to do their own inductive reasoning, and to come up with rules or guidelines or possibilities for themselves. (My “what to notice” notes in this section are only for clarification. I don’t share my reason for choosing a particular example at first because I want students to tell me what they notice.)

• If you don’t have a copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, consider getting one. Grahame is particularly adept at using conventions with precision, style, grace, and creativity, and you can find an example of just about anything in the world of conventions that you’d like to teach—like semicolons (which can be hard to find in current lit). In this example, Mole (who’s just overturned a boat in the river), is being rescued by Rat, who offers Mole shelter in his home: “It’s very plain and rough, you know—not like Toad’s house at all—but you haven’t seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable” (Ariel, 1980, p. 15). What to notice: Two distinct clauses are closely aligned, “joining hands” we might say, via the semicolon. Would a period work as well?

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

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

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

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

You don’t want to do all the digging, of course. After sharing a few examples, have students find their own—and present them to the class. As you collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover together that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to share both message and voice in memorable ways.

Suggestion 7
Give students room to breathe. If we wait—three days seems about ideal—from the time we write a draft until the time we attempt to edit that draft, our ability to spot errors is heightened noticeably. Almost no one (not even skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. (Writing assessment developers, please take note.) That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what found its way to the page. When editing our own work, we also tend to read rapidly, and in so doing, skim right over missing words, misspelled words, faulty punctuation, and the rest. Allowing time between drafts creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. We literally create the illusion that it belongs to someone else.

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

You can ask a student to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme diligence—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits with close-up care can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons (See Suggestions 3, 4, and 5).

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

A conventions conference can be helpful, and it need not take long. Go over one or two errors you think deserve the most attention—perhaps those that come up more than once in the paper. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find other similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. As an alternative, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (not a prescribed list, but one that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write. Add new words as the need arises; remove words students have conquered.

And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world. Note: Unfortunately, many writing assessments still do not permit such access. Some people, evidence and common sense to the contrary, fear that the mere presence of a dictionary can somehow transform a struggling writer into a best-selling author. If only it were that simple.

Suggestion 9
If technology is available, use it! It’s no secret that revision and editing are far easier and faster when you have access to word processing. A student can create multiple word processed revisions in the time it takes to tediously recopy one draft by hand. Further, the ability to make big and continual changes in a draft (e.g., moving copy, perhaps more than once, deleting or adding text, trying several different leads or endings) means that a word processed document winds up mirroring the writer’s thinking more closely than a handwritten, one-time revision ever could. Technology also allows for last-minute changes (oh—just thought of a different word, got a better title) that someone writing longhand just won’t trouble to make. Comfort with word processing is particularly important given that (based on current best guesses) assessments pertaining to the Common Core writing standards will be administered on computer.

Suggestion 10
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud sloooooooooowwwwwwwws us dooooooooooowwwwwwwwwn, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud. Further, moments that sound awkward when read aloud will probably slow a silent reader down, too. As students gain sophistication, reading aloud helps them hear places where specific punctuation (e.g., ellipses, dashes), italics, FULL CAPITALS or other conventions of emphasis might bring out the voice in a piece.

Suggestion 11
Get a good handbook. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. No one remembers everything. You might consider—

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

Teach students to use whatever resource you settle on, and when a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time. If you have two copies in your classroom, students can do this competitively, which makes the search considerably livelier—and students who help the class in this way are learning a skill they will use for life.
Other resources provide suggestions for writing that go beyond what you’ll find in even the best handbooks—and they’re often entertaining too, so you can choose passages to read aloud. Here are a handful of my favorites (Every single one of these is fun to read):

Room to Write by Bonnie Goldberg
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Words Fail Me AND Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) by William Zinsser
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald Murray
Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano

Suggestion 12
Celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be.

Notice content and voice first. Students are far more excited about tackling editing when they feel certain they have a reader’s attention and have written something worth editing in the first place.

Have students collect examples of conventional creativity. Create a class Podcast featuring these examples, or make a bulletin board display. Help students see how much fun conventions can be.

Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

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

Looking for editing lessons?
Check these NEW resources we designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

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

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

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.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff reviews the remarkable historic narrative Bomb, a Newbery Honor book by Steve Sheinkin. Not many informational books can also claim to be thrillers. You won’t want to miss it. 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, writing process and workshop, and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.


Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. 2012. Doreen Rappaport. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 196pp. (excluding extensive notes)
Genre: Informational narrative, history
Ages: Grades 6 and up. Rappaport handles a delicate topic with great sensitivity and skill. The content is necessarily somber—at times horrific—but Rappaport manages to make these stories accessible to younger readers without disguising or glossing over the truth.

In her moving Introduction, author Doreen Rappaport confesses that even while growing up in a Jewish household, she was told that during the Second World War, “Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.” Was it true? Determined to find out for herself, she embarked on a rigorous investigation that included six years of personal interviews with Holocaust survivors. Her conclusion: Even deprived of resources, homes, clothing, weapons, and virtually anything to fight with save their intellect and courage, the Jews proved to be formidable opponents, outwitting Nazi extremists at every turn, and preserving their treasured culture against overwhelming odds. Deeply moved by what she had learned, Rappaport wanted to share her findings with the world, and the result is this book.

Chilling in detail, highly readable, and impressively researched, Beyond Courage reveals the personal stories of people, many in their teens or younger, who risked everything to preserve their identity. Together, facing opposition from a political machine out to annihilate them, they set up schools, devised ingenious plans for smuggling children out of harm’s way (knowing they might never see them again), sabotaged Nazi trains and weapon depositories, trained themselves to be expert forgers in order to create travel documents, established wilderness camps from which to launch more elaborate plans, and routinely plotted and conducted the most daring escapes imaginable.

Children as young as seven or eight became spies and soldiers. Women carried weapons. People of all ages and both sexes faced unthinkable persecution, prejudice, starvation, and torture, yet refused to surrender or renounce their religion. They weren’t just brave. They were unstoppable. This is their story—and it is stunning.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. While it may be long to share in its entirety, it is broken down into 20 individual chapters, each of which is fairly short. You might choose one or two to share aloud, then invite students to read the remainder of the book on their own. Or as an alternative, choose a number of individual passages to read orally. Notice that the book contains historic summaries as well as the stories of individual resistance fighters. You will want to draw from both.

2. Background. What stories have your students heard about the Holocaust or Jewish resistance and survival during the time of World War II? Have they read The Story of a Young Girl (Anne Frank’s diary), In My Hands by Irene Opdyke, Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo, The Secret Holocaust Diaries by Carolyn Tomlin—or other books detailing true stories of the Holocaust, its victims, and its survivors? What do they know about Hitler, World War II, the Nazi movement, concentration camps, or the story of Hitler’s rise to power and eventual defeat? You may wish to provide some historic background prior to sharing the book to provide a context, keeping in mind that some history of the time is recounted in the book itself. If you are familiar with literature on this topic, you may also wish to create, with your students, a reading and media list for extended learning.

3. Personal connection. Are you or are any of your students of Jewish descent? What stories have you or they heard from parents, grandparents, or other relatives about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust? Can you or they provide any personal perspectives to enrich your class’s understanding of what Jews endured and overcame during this difficult and terrifying time? Regardless of heritage, we all have traditions or beliefs we hold dear, and family, religious, or cultural ties that are sacred. Ask students to imagine how it would feel to be evicted from their homes, separated from their families and possessions, and exist in constant fear of deportation or death. Would they have the personal courage to fight back, even if their lives or the lives of their families were at stake? Write a reflective piece about this—and expand this writing after sharing and discussing the book. (Suggestion: Before they write, share with your students poet Henryk Lazowertówna’s poem, p. 82. You may wish to have them perform it aloud, individually or through choral reading.)

4. Topic. From Rappaport’s Introduction, we know the central theme of the book: to demonstrate the extent to which the Jews fought back against Nazi domination. Does Rappaport make her case? Is this a persuasive book? If so, which stories or individual incidents provide, in your students’ opinions, particularly convincing evidence of Jewish strength and courage?

5. Persuasive writing. Is fighting back always the right choice—or is it a matter of judgment or circumstance? Are there times when the price to be paid for resistance is simply too great to justify opposition? Argument: Have students make a case for resisting oppression at all costs—or for peacefully abiding by a government’s rules, even if they seem unjust. If opposition involves violence, is it still justified? Under what circumstances? Have students use examples from the book or from current events to defend their arguments.

6. Character. The Common Core Standards for Narrative remind us that characters reveal their nature through the choices they make in challenging situations. Share the chapter titled “Coffee and Tea,” the story of Walter Süskind and his elaborate plans to rescue Jewish children. Based on the information in this chapter, what sort of person was Walter Süskind? What details help us to understand him? Based on the book, would your students regard his story as unusual—or was his a typical story of those who fought back? Cite evidence to support your claim.

7. Genre. The Common Core Standards divide writing into three broad genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. Into which category does Doreen Rappaport’s book fall—or is it an effective blend of all three? Is narrative writing often informational? And do stories often provide the basis for sound argument? Does good writing generally comprise several different genres? Discuss or write about this.

8. Organization. Take a few minutes to discuss how this complex text is organized. Read the Introduction aloud, focusing on the six years of interviews and other research Rappaport did in compiling information in which to base her book. Have students imagine what it is like to have such an overwhelming collection of details, and to try putting them into a framework readers can process in a reasonable amount of time. What challenges would a writer face in doing this? What organizational strategies does Rappaport use to make this extensive and detailed information manageable for us, as readers? (Consider, among other things, how the book is divided into five sections and then into 20 chapters. Notice also the different kinds of text: historic summaries as well as stories. You may also wish to comment on how the author keeps individual sections short. Obviously, there was more—much more—to tell. How did she decide what to include? Also notice that while some of the organization is chronological, Rappaport also brings together multiple voices. Consider other topics for which a multi-voiced organizational approach might work well.)

9. Informational writing. The story of Jewish resistance is vast, and cannot be covered in a single book, however well-researched and written. Invite students to choose one topic for further exploration: e.g., life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), deportation of Jewish children, wilderness camps, children who acted as spies or procurers of food, the role played by skilled forgers, modern-day perspectives on the Holocaust. Ask them to research and write about their selected topics. You may also want to spend some time discussing the nature of research: Where will they find the best information? Note that Rappaport obtained much of her information through personal interviews—in other words, from first-hand sources. How is obtaining information from a first-hand source different from visiting a library or going on the Internet? What types of sources are most dependable when it comes to accuracy? And why is it always important to incorporate more than one kind of research (e.g., site visits, interviews, films, print) when preparing to write an informational piece?

10. Comparison/Contrast. If students have read any other literature written about the Holocaust (see item 2 above), invite them to do a comparison between any other work and Beyond Courage. That comparison might feature central themes, each writer’s approach to the topic, the kind of research each writer did, writing styles, document design, or any other elements of the two works. Students should be prepared to reference specific sections of each work, and include quotations from both works.

11. Reviews. Invite students to write reviews of Beyond Courage. They should focus on the strengths of the work and the audience for whom they think this writing is most appropriate. Reviews might be presented in written form or as podcasts or PowerPoint presentations. They can also be posted online with a vendor (e.g., Amazon) that invites such reviews.

12. Voice. The Common Core Standards suggest that informational writing or argument should be written in a style that is appropriate for the topic and audience. In other words, they are asking writers in such genres to assume a professional voice. Share any passage from the book aloud—e.g., the opening to the chapter titled “Scream the Truth at the World!” (p. 81). In this chapter, Rappaport is describing people starving on a diet of 184 calories per day—and children as young as six smuggling food into hungry families in the ghetto. How would you describe the voice she uses in this (or another) passage? Is it the right voice for this book? Why? (Note that Rappaport does not try to dramatize her information—but neither does she shrink from it. She relays her information in an unflinching but decidedly restrained fashion, letting the facts speak for themselves.)

13. Presentation. What do your students notice about the overall design of the book? You might draw their attention to colors, shifts in fonts, illustrations (what sorts of photos or drawings were chosen?), and the subtle background images. What do those images convey? The photos include numerous individual portraits of Jewish fighters, rather than Nazi military personnel or war criminals. Why is this significant? Also notice the silvery gray and blue cover of the book. What do those colors suggest?

14. Beginning and ending. Beyond Courage opens and closes with the words of Franta Bass, age eleven. Read Franta’s short free verse poem aloud and discuss what it reveals about her. Why do you think the author chose this piece to both open and close her book? What does this repetition say to us as readers? One need not be Jewish to feel the kind of pride and determination Franta conveys in her stirring poetry. Invite students to write poems of their own, honoring their own culture, heritage, or family.

15. Reflections on history. By her own admission, even the book’s author believed for many years that Jews had gone submissively to their deaths during the war. What created this impression? Write about this (Suggestion: Interview people of Jewish and non-Jewish heritage prior to writing). Many Jews were told they were being “relocated,” when in fact they were being shipped to work or death camps. Would they have resisted more forcefully had they known the truth? Could this sort of deception succeed (with any people) in our own culture in the present time? Why or why not? Have students write an argumentative essay taking one side or the other, and supporting their claims with specific evidence.

16. For additional information. The author provides extensive notes suggesting sources for further research (see the back of the book for important dates, source notes, and an impressive bibliography). In addition, however, she strives to continue the journey of discovery begun by this book by posting additional resistance stories on her website: We invite you to visit her there.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next up, in honor of Women’s History Month (March 1-31), Jeff reviews two picture book biographies: Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children by Jan Pinborough, and Brave Girl: Glara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-379-3034. Give every child a voice.

Our January 20 post included a memo distributed by a school district central office a few years ago—a memo designed to recruit volunteers who would recommend budgeting priorities to the local school board. If there is ever a time you want your writing to be concise and punchy, it’s when you’re asking for help. However, this district office apparently didn’t get the memo on writing concise, readable memos. Theirs was vague—and long. Long doesn’t even work for novels unless they’re really good; with memos, it’s a disaster. (If you’ve not read our January 20 post, take a quick look before going on so you can see the unrevised memo—it will help you appreciate what these high school revisers did!)

Turning Real Writing into a Lesson
As I noted last time, I had saved this piece of writing in a file labeled “Real World Writing.” I save all kinds of pieces (to use for lessons or in workshops)—from advertisements and flyers to travel literature, editorials, reviews, recipes, excerpts from textbooks or journals, letters, and more.

I choose them specifically because they need revision. They may be unclear, filled with jargon, over-written, or just contain awkward moments that could use some smoothing out. Whatever the problem(s), they provide a challenge for students looking to sharpen their revision skills. Let me share the steps I followed to turn this particular piece into a very worthwhile lesson on revision, and then I’ll also share the impressive revision I got from one team of students.

1. Prepare the text for editing. First, I retyped the piece so I could put it in larger print and double space it, allowing room for revision. Anyone who has tried revising single-spaced text knows how inhibiting it is to have virtually no room for your inserts and editorial marks.

2. Print copies. I printed out enough copies for each student in the class I was visiting–about 30.

3. Introduce the lesson. I introduced the lesson by suggesting to the class that many pieces of real world writing need revision, and asked them the last time they could recall reading something and thinking to themselves, “I could write that better.” Virtually every hand went up. (This was a good start!)

4. Set the context for the writing. I then gave them the context for the memo—a school district trying to put together a committee of volunteers who would make recommendations to the local school board on top priorities for spending. This memo went out to all parents with children attending schools within the district. We talked about the kind of writing that would make a positive impression on parents. It should be clear and friendly, they told me.

5. Read the copy aloud. I read the memo aloud, and asked for comments. Most students said they needed to hear it again. It didn’t make sense. Several said it was too long. Two or three asked what on earth Volkswagens had to do with education. One said it didn’t sound as if it were written by an educator—it sounded more like it was written by some CEO trying to impress the readers with his vocabulary. I asked if the voice sounded male or female—all but one said male. (I don’t honestly know, so I couldn’t say if they were right.)

6. Hand out copies. After reading the text aloud, I handed out copies so students could read the copy again silently to themselves.

7. Discuss problems. Before they began marking up the text, I asked them to identify, as a class, what they saw as the major problems. What really needed revising? We made a list, and while they mentioned quite a number of things they’d like to change, these were the top three: (1) Make it shorter; (2) Get rid of unneeded information; and (3) Make it sound friendlier—not “like you’re trying to show off”!

8. Work individually. At this point, I asked students to work for a few minutes individually, crossing out anything not needed, adding information, changing wording, or anything else they felt was important.

9. Work in teams of two. When they’d spent about seven or eight minutes on their own, I had them pair up with a partner to write a final revision. This gave them a chance to compare notes, to talk, to rethink anything they didn’t feel was quite right yet, and to combine the best of each student’s individual efforts.

10. Have writers read final drafts aloud. I encouraged writers to read their final revisions aloud to each other, softly, using their ears as well as their eyes to hear how each piece would strike a reader, keeping in mind that this would be read by parents being asked to donate their time.

The Results
Students were invited to read their final drafts aloud for the whole class (they were a very appreciative audience for one another) and to talk about their revision process. Virtually every team had shortened the original considerably—most by at least half. Everyone took out the reference to conjoint analysis, which no one understood, and which seemed unrelated to the issue at hand. (I confess I never looked it up on the Internet—perhaps it is related to budgeting, but it seemed unnecessary and cumbersome.)

Most revisions involved condensing and rewording—as well as making an effort to give the memo a more conversational tone. The students were very audience-sensitive, and several said their parents would throw this memo (the original) away without a second thought. We talked about ways to reach an audience and hold their attention; this is a major focus of the Common Core Standards—and this memo in its original form shows why.

Finally, several students noted that the memo provided no specifics about how to reach someone at the district office “in the unlikely event” (as one put it) that someone should actually want to volunteer (though no one could picture this happening). So they added this information. Many of the revisions were excellent; ALL (without exception) were improvements on the original. Here is one I saved as an example:

Help! Our school is facing serious budget problems, and our school board is seeking suggestions on how to spend limited funds. What are your priorities? We’d like to know! If you can spare an hour or two, please call ###-####. Thank you! We look forward to hearing your ideas!

I think this is an excellent revision by a student. It’s short, it’s friendly, and it’s clear. I know there’s a picky editor out there somewhere saying that high school students shouldn’t use so many exclamation points. As Gilda Radner used to say, “There’s always something.” And normally, I’d agree. But if you take them out of this memo, it suddenly gets all solemn and serious, and the urgency evaporates. What matters is this: High school writers took an inflated, overblown memo all full of itself and turned it into a simple request. Just imagine if this student had been “helping out” at that district office. I can imagine quite a few more volunteers would have shown up.

The Common Core Assessments
It’s worth noting that the upcoming Common Core Assessments for writing will include activities just like this, which is to say, activities requiring revision. That’s because revision is a form of thinking in action, and thinking skills will be the heart and soul of CCSS assessment. Students may be asked to create an ending for writing that doesn’t have one, to condense a wordy piece, to delete sentences that are unrelated to or distract from the central topic, and so on (check out for examples). In other words, they’ll be asked to engage in real world writing tasks, much like the one I shared with the high school students. So—the next year or so offers a good time to practice. Check out the online sample items, and if you’d like more, we have books filled with revision and editing activities just like this for grades 2 through 8. They’re titled Creating Revisers and Editors, and each edition is grade specific. You will also find many similar activities in the Write Traits Classroom Kits written by my wonderful co-author Jeff Hicks and me. Check online (, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or call the number below for more information.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Look for our review of Doreen Rappaport’s remarkable book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by. Please come often—and bring friends. If you enjoyed this lesson, let us know—we’ll post more revision examples! And remember . . . for the very best writing workshops featuring traits, standards, process, workshop, and literature, please phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 Here’s where we left off (way back in March) at the end of Down the Rabbit Hole—Part I: Now, I’ve also heard teachers tell me this (to help students conceptualize the trait of ideas is to think of ideas as memories.”) is all great for students whose lives outside of school are filled with activities, friends, and meaningful interactions with parents. What about the students whose lives, at least in terms of experiences, happen mainly while they are at school?

These comments from teachers refer to those students who, no matter the amount or type of nurturing or stirring of, “the people, places, events, experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that we hold in our memories…” just don’t seem to have, be able to access, or even value any personal memories—“I don’t have anything to write about.” We’ve all heard this from students. Well, of course they have memories, but they may think theirs aren’t good enough for writing topics or for other students to care about. These students may think their ideas/memories have to be “front page news,” and they don’t view their experiences and thoughts as newsworthy to anyone, even to themselves. When writers are able to choose their own topics, based on personal experiences or memories, it is such an opportunity for them to discover and develop their own, individual writer’s voice. Why? Because what they are writing about, they have lived through first hand. I think it’s important then, to provide all students with a safety net of memories, an alternate history, a rabbit hole of shared events, literary experiences, people, stories, and conversations, that were/are a part of each student’s daily life, each day at school. As long as you have a captive audience, why not help them create and capture a rabbit hole of potential writing topics, accessible any time. Let me describe a bit about how I tried to build this class history and culture of memories in my own classrooms.

When I first started teaching, I realized that one of the toughest obstacles for me wasn’t mastering classroom management or planning focused, interesting lessons. Those didn’t come easily, but I had to deal with a bigger problem first. Clipboards. I didn’t have enough clipboards! My mentor teacher had loads of them, and I wanted to imitate her system. I needed clipboards for managing Writer’s Workshop, for individual students to be able to work on the go—standing up, exploring outside, moving to a classroom down the hall—and I needed some for my daily opening routine, something else I had learned from my mentor. Each day I tried to open with a routine designed to help students focus on the day at hand, to preview and set the tone for upcoming topics/events, and to honor and nurture our yesterdays. Each day of school, including the first day, I kept my clipboard (thanks to wonderful parent volunteers for providing me with a supply) with me and jotted notes down throughout the current day, to be used the next morning.

The column headings of my note page, seen on the (crudely crafted) sample, are just a few of the ideas you could use. The “Planting Seeds” column is where I would write down anything, from learning targets to television programs or book titles, that I wanted to preview/tease/tip/anticipate for my students. “SORAs” are pretty self-explanatory. This was a place to record specific moments/achievements that I wanted to give students a positive stroke for—academic, behavioral, interpersonal, motivational, etc.  In the middle column headed, “Let’s Remember,” went everything I wanted students to hear about a second time (or a third…). I could have called this one “Hey! Don’t Forget/Nag, Nag, Nag/You Really Need to Know This!” I remember writing down reminders about bringing lunches for field trips, walking in the halls, and even something about mathematical order of operations. The notes in the “From the Book” column were all about the reading we were doing in class. It could be based on a read-aloud—picture book, novel, article—or something students were reading for instruction. A note here might be about an author, illustrator, character, informational detail, comprehension focus, a connection to one or more of the 6-traits, or emphasizing the importance of reading like a writer. The last column, “Quotes/Words,” was the place I would write down interesting things I heard students say, a kind of quotable quotes section, along with new/interesting/important words that came up during the course of the day. Three of the five columns were connected to bulletin boards around the room. We kept a detailed calendar of birthdays, school events, due dates, etc. Many “Planting Seeds” items would then be recorded on the calendar. The “From the Book” column was connected to another bulletin board where key information about any book read aloud in class would be recorded. For picture books, we kept track of titles, authors, and illustrators. For novels (chapter books), we extended that to also include the names of main characters and a brief genre description. I also had a “Quotes/Words,” bulletin board to capture and display the spoken thoughts of students and a mini word wall for all the great words we had discovered.

I need to mention something that happened the first time I implemented this with my own group of students. Within a couple days, students began approaching me during the day to suggest things to include on my clipboard. In my first year of doing this, based on a student suggestion, I added another clipboard to the mix—a student clipboard, with the same headings. The suggestion was to rotate the clipboard to a different student each day, to make sure we were capturing all that was important and worthy of mentioning the next day, especially from the students’ point of view. This actually became one of my students’ favorite classroom “jobs.” We even coined a new phrase students would use to be sure an item was recorded. A student would just say, “Clipboard it!”

So let’s return to the original question– Now, I’ve also heard teachers tell me this (to help students conceptualize the trait of ideas is to think of ideas as memories.”) is all great for students whose lives outside of school are filled with activities, friends, and meaningful interactions with parents. What about the students whose lives, at least in terms of experiences, happen mainly while they are at school? All of this—the clipboards, bulletin boards, and daily routine—are about building a class history by honoring the learning, events, people, and stories of daily classroom life through conversations and displays that serve as review, reminder, and even rehearsal for writing. By keeping the day to day of classroom life alive, even the smallest things become  shared memories and  possible writing topics, with a built in support system. “Remember that day when Gino threw up on Mr. Hicks’ new brown shoes?” or “Remember when Alter Weiner, a Holocaust survivor, came to our school to talk with us about his life during World War II?” are stories that each student could tell from our shared experiences, and write about from an individual perspective. Our daily history became a wealth of possible writing topics—a resource for and a response to the student who says, “I don’t have anything to write about.”

Book Suggestions…

The books you choose to share with your students are important for many reasons, so choose purposefully. As I suggested above, keeping a literary history—titles, authors, illustrators, characters, topics, etc.—will help your students not only remember what they have heard or read, but also help them make connections between the books and their own lives, in and outside of school. There are many books that encourage readers, in both subtle and obvious ways, to notice the world around them, to look and interact closely, to appreciate and remember what they have experienced. Here are just a few titles to share with students to urge them to make memories and remind them that they do have many things to write about.

Zoom by Istvan Banyai

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas

Snail Trail by Ruth Brown

Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet

Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall

If You Find A Rock by Peggy Christian, photographs by Barbara Hirsch Lember

If Rocks Could Sing: A Discovered Alphabet by Leslie McGuirk

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney, illustrated by Matt Phelan

The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz

(How about sharing some of the books you like to use in your classroom?)

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Within the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything—sounds pretty comprehensive, so you don’t want to miss it. And save some room for a sliver of Susanna Reich’s Minette’s Feast: the Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, please call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

The Totally Amazing Appendix A

If you are teaching writing with the Common Core Standards in mind, no doubt you have visited the website:  And that means you are familiar with requirements for writing for your grade level–and perhaps others as well. Maybe you’ve even taken time to peruse the Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness. But–have you had a look at Appendix A? Right–the appendix. Not the place most people begin their reading, but in this case, the perfect place to begin. Only a few pages (22 to 25) are devoted to writing, but they are gems.


First, you’ll find extended, helpful, readable definitions of the three text types emphasized in the Standards, namely

  • Informational/explanatory writing
  • Argument
  • Narrative writing

Appendix A makes it clear that each of these “text types” embraces many different sub-genres or forms of writing. For example, informational writing could include everything from an essay on humpback whales to a police report or newspaper article or script for a documentary film. The reason this matters so much is that we often do not think creatively when assigning writing in school. We need to think beyond the traditional research report because, as important as that form is, it’s not sufficient to help students bridge the gap between high school and college or the workplace.

The Wonderful World of Blended Genres

Appendix A also points out that much of our finest writing is a blend of genres. Indeed, any time a writer strings together more than a few paragraphs, it is nearly impossible not to combine genres in some way. My favorite example of this is Bill Bryson’s remarkable book In a Sunburned Country, based on the author’s research and travels to Australia. Bryson’s book seamlessly and deftly combines travel writing, geography, history, informational writing (on countless topics, including topography, wildlife, and cooking), and wildly humorous anecdotes. It’s a book that defies classification–which is precisely what makes it such a treasure.

The Special Place of Argument

A particularly important feature of Appendix A is a thoughtful explanation of just why argument is so important–and so strongly emphasized. Argument, the Standards writers claim, encourages deep thinking. And that in a nutshell is the whole point. Whether it’s oral argument or written, students must think carefully about an issue, give just and respectful consideration to both (or all) sides, weigh evidence, analyze projected outcomes, and guide readers to a good decision. The purpose of argument is not–as is often supposed–to simply get people on your side. This simplistic view often leads students to offer emotional responses or hasty replies that have little or nothing to do with facts or evidence: e.g., Year-round school is a terrible idea because students would hate it, College is not for everyone because we’re all individuals. Note also that the writers use the word “argument” in a special way. This may be splitting semantic hairs, but it’s worth paying attention to . . .

Argument vs. Persuasive Writing

Many of us have used (and continue to use) the term “persuasive writing” in referring to what is essentially the same as the Common Core definition of “argument.” But the Core writers draw a distinction. And that distinction hovers around one word: evidence. A piece may be highly persuasive, but appeal primarily to emotion or (when all else fails) the well-being of the reader. In other words, persuasive pieces are often about passion.

True argument, by contrast, relies on evidence and logical reasoning. This means that the writer needs to do his or her research and examine various perspectives meticulously. This is not to say that the writer won’t make a forceful or compelling case in the end, but underlying all that irresistible oratory will be the heart and soul of any strong argument: reason.

Making the Reading Connection

Many pages of Appendix A are devoted to background and research underlying the Common Core Standards for reading. Though this discussion is detailed, I urge you to take time to read through them–especially considering the implications for writing. It’s no secret that the Core Standards emphasize informational writing and argument. But here’s the thing: Research cited in this discussion reveals that most students read narrative writing almost exclusively. They are not reading much informational writing at all–and what they do read often comes from textbooks. Rarely are these the finest informational models we could offer. Students will write what they read. So the message could not be clearer: If we want students to write informational pieces that actually teach readers something, we need to provide examples of such writing–many of them. Hundreds of them. If you are not reading aloud to your students from the best informational writing you can find, please consider starting. This is one of the most effective ways to create strong informational writers.

A second theme of the Appendix A section on reading: declining complexity. The texts many of our students read is just too simple. It’s been getting simpler since before 1950. What does this mean? Simpler vocabulary, shorter sentences–and in some cases (though by no means all), easier-to-understand concepts. A good argument can be made, of course, for the value of such writing for students who are challenged readers or who are learning English. Absolutely. There’s no debating this. The problem is, when students never encounter text that challenges them, makes them go back, reread, rethink, look up a word, sort through syntax, they are not preparing themselves for the demands of college-level reading. And it can hit them like a wrecking ball.

What can we do about this? We can (1) read to students–even those at primary level–from text that asks them to stretch, text with long and complex sentences and words that are likely new to them, and (2) ask students to read at least short passages that challenge their thinking, and occasionally, to restate such passages in writing, in their own words.

The totally amazing Appendix A is definitely on our recommended reading list. 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll take a further look at the art of writing a good argument, through the eyes of George Hillocks, Jr., and his wonderful new book, Teaching Argument Writing. Thank you for stopping by, and please remember: For the BEST in trait-based writing PD, please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.