Tag Archive: argument


 

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In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to what works in the ELA Classroom. 2015. Written by Kelly Gallagher. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. 238 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource book

Focus: Discussion, lessons/classroom practice centered on “Three key “lessons” for educators/classroom teachers regarding literacy and the CCSS:

Lesson 1: Avoid falling in love with these standards. They won’t be here forever.

Lesson 2: Recognize that the standards by themselves are necessary but insufficient.

Lesson 3: Remember that good teaching is not about ‘covering’ a new list of standards; good teaching is grounded in practices proven to sharpen our students’ literacy skills.” (Page 3)

Special features: Many samples of student work and teacher modeling specific to strategies and lessons being addressed, Appendix A—Tracking Your Writing Chart, Appendix B—Conversation Chart, detailed References Section

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Background

This summer, after reading Kelly Gallagher’s book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop led by Mr. Gallagher, right here in Beaverton, Oregon! It was very intimate: Kelly Gallagher, myself, and about one hundred middle and high school teachers from the Beaverton School District. (I went to school in Beaverton, taught here for 18 years, am married to an amazing teacher who just began her 35th year in the classroom in the BSD, served for ten years as an elected volunteer on the Beaverton School Board, and am about to start substitute teaching now that I am no longer on the Board.) He came to our District to share his insights and ideas about reading, writing, and speaking in light of the strengths and inherent shortcomings of the CCSS, and to inspire teachers about to begin a new year in the classroom. Not only is Kelly a confident, skilled, experienced presenter, he is also a confident, skilled, experienced teacher. Kelly has both “professional development presenter cred”—he is the author of Reading Reasons, Deeper Reading, Teaching Adolesent Writers, Readicide, and Write Like This, and absolutely stellar “teacher cred”—thirty years in a variety of middle, high, and college level classroom settings. And he is currently teaching high school students in Anaheim, California! From my experience as both a teacher and presenter, nothing resonates with audiences of teachers like the truths–words, stories, and knowledge—spoken by someone who has made the life altering choice to be the responsible adult in a room full of students on a daily basis, who understands and cares about the personal and learning lives of his students, and who clearly loves doing it. Mr. Gallagher, the author, speaks directly to readers with the same passion and expertise he brings to his workshops. My goals as a presenter are to energize teachers and to arm them with real life classroom strategies and practices, not simply “activities,” to help them help their students become more confident, willing writers. On this day, Kelly accomplished both. Here’s a short summary, followed by a sample of this book’s big ideas and strategies.

Summary

“Let’s step away from the politics and madness that have accompanied yet another new educational movement. Let’s step away from the pendulum that has swung once again. Let’s step away from teaching to another series of tests that narrow our instruction. Instead, let’s direct our focus on what we know works when it come to teaching students how to read, write, listen, and speak. Let’s focus on what is in the best interest of students. “ (Page 13)

Mr. Gallagher’s book is not an anti-CCSS manifesto. But it does ring, loudly, the literacy-skills alarm bell to call attention to the dangers of narrowly focusing instructional efforts on the goal of “checking off” this new set of standards. The author’s rallying cry is that “…generally, students are not getting enough writing practice in our schools.” (Page 7) This book, then, is all about pumping up the volume of writing and reading—experiences and instruction—for students. The author offers teachers a mindset and specific, proven strategies to “fit” the standards into their writing instruction rather than the other way around. “Writing instruction should be a non-negotiable core value in any classroom…What does it matter if teachers spring through all the standards if at the end of the year their students still cannot write well?”

(Page 7) The book’s chapters alternate between discussions of the “core values behind the teaching” of reading, writing, speaking, and what the author feels the CCSS for literacy “get right” for each of these areas, followed by a chapter focusing on what Mr. Gallagher feels the CCSS “get wrong,” and what teachers can do (with descriptions of specific strategies/lessons) in their classrooms to address their students’ literacy needs and “stay true to what works.”

The following are just a sampling of the MANY highlights of this book. I’m a note taker when I read, and when I’m a workshop participant. It’s how I engage in, process, and mentally sift through incoming information. These highlights are from my notes, and are actually the highlights of the highlights, if that’s not too confusing. Hopefully, these morsels will pique your interest in reading Kelly’s book.)

Selected highlights from In the Best Interest of Students (With a heavier emphasis on Mr. Gallagher’s ideas about writing instruction)

1. Why Read?

“It doesn’t matter how good the anchor reading standards are if our student’s don’t read. It doesn’t matter how much effort teachers put into teaching the anchor reading standards if our student’s don’t read. And if we don’t create environments where our students are reading lots of books, they will never become the kinds of readers we want them to be.” (Page 55) If you’re a true reader, you may not understand how/why this question even needs asking. As an author, Kelly Gallagher has probed the depths of this question in at least two of his previous books. As a teacher, Kelly Gallagher understands the need to have answers at the ready. He provides his students with at least ten excellent responses, backed up by structures, practices, and strategies that take them beyond the realm of mere sound bites or t-shirt memes, to this foundational question. Here are just a few:

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

(Check out the entire list—infographic form—under instructional materials in the Resources section at kellygallagher.org)

2. Seventeen Word Summaries, Window Quotes, Poetry Line Breaks, “Reading” Photographs and Art

In chapter two, the author focuses on what he sees as the strengths of the first nine anchor standards for ELA: Key Ideas and Details–standards 1-3, Craft and Structure—standards 4-6, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas—standards 7-9. Since each of these groups has a distinct reading focus, Mr. Gallagher turns the category headings into “essential” questions centered on this focus: Standards 1-3—What does the text say? Standards 4-6—What does the text do? Standards 7-9—What does the text mean?

What does the text say? Literal understanding is where deeper reading begins. Mr. Gallagher wants his students to demonstrate that they know what’s going on in a text by being able to retell what’s happening. Here are a couple of the summarizing activities he uses with to students to “introduce and sharpen their summary skills.”

17-word summaries (What does the text say?)

Mr. Gallagher wanted to know if his students were understanding what was happening in the first chapter of Lord of the Flies, before asking them to read further independently. He asked a student to select a number between ten and twenty—she landed on seventeen. Ta-da! Students were then instructed to write seventeen—exactly, no more or less—word summaries of chapter one. Here are two samples (Page 18):

Because of a plane crash, a group of kids are stranded on an island with no adults. (Miguel)

A plane crashes on an island; the kids will have to learn how to survive without groups. (Jessica)

I love this practice. My own students used to struggle with summarizing, a skill I believe to be an important one. My variation on this was to ask students to imitate the arts and entertainment section of our newspaper where one-sentence movie summaries could be found. Summarizing forces writers to narrow their focus from a retelling of the entire movie (what we called an all-ary”) to a carefully constructed single sentence overview (what we referred to as a some-ary”). By limiting the number of words to seventeen, writers are forced to carefully consider each word chosen, along with the sentence’s structure and appropriate punctuation. (Notice the use of a semicolon in one of the examples.) These short summaries become useful formative assessment tools (imagine using this practice as an “exit ticket”) for teachers—they can be read easily/quickly, yet provide a clear picture of levels of student understanding to inform your instruction.

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Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

The photo above is one I took of the text from a National Geographic article about Antartica (September 2013). Notice the “window quote,” a portion of the text highlighted—larger, red letters—in a “window.” “Window quotes” are used to attract/focus reader’s attention on a particularly interesting moment or important big idea in the piece of writing. Kelly’s practice involves asking students to choose their own quote from an article (he asks students to read—every Monday—an article he has selected (See Article of the Week, AoW, in the Resources section at kellygallagher.org). I have also tried this with student writers, asking them to select a window quote from a piece they are writing, pushing them to carefully read/reread their writing looking for sentences that will interest and inform their readers.

A Writer’s Moves (What does the text do?)

Teaching your students to “read like writers and write like readers” is not a new idea, but it is directly connected to addressing the Craft and Structure standards 4-6. More importantly, helping students to “read like writers” is about them learning to recognize a writer’s “moves”—the techniques and conscious choices writers make—as a first step to learning, developing, imitating, utilizing these moves in their own writing. Asking students to identify a writer’s main idea or find the evidence used to support it will help you know if they understand what the writing is “saying.” By asking students what “moves” the writer makes or what makes a piece of writing particularly effective, helps move students closer to “reading like a writer.” Try it out for yourself.

imgres-7Here is a passage from Gary Paulsen’s (now) classic book, Hatchet. In the first few pages, readers meet thirteen-year-old Brian, a passenger in a small plane, on his way to spend the summer with his father at his worksite in Canada. During the flight, Brian is at first lost in thoughts of his parents break up. (Spoiler alert! I say “at first” because the pilot is about to have a heart attack!) Read the passage, then try answering the questions that follow to get a taste of this practice.

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.

Divorce.

It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers—God , he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart—and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life—all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, an ugly breaking word.

Divorce.

Secrets.

No, not secrets so much as just the Secret. What he knew and had not told anybody, what he knew about his mother that had caused the divorce, what he knew, what he knew—the Secret.

Divorce.

The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

What makes this an effective piece of writing? (Even though you know there is a lot more to come.)

Those of you who are fans of Gary Paulsen will notice a few of his signature “moves”—the really short “sentences,” the repetition of phrasing, the use of longer sentence fragments, etc.

“Reading” photographs and paintings: Recognizing Audience and Purpose (What does the text mean?)

To help “move students beyond surface-level thinking” Mr. Gallagher asks his students to analyze photographs, like the one below. In the photo, Hazel Bryan Massery is shown shouting at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. Will Counts, a 26-year-old journalist took the photo in 1957, nine African American students entered Little Rock Central High School following Supreme Court decisions focused on integration. Treating the photograph as a “text,” he asks students to think about what the text “says” to them, prior to any discussion of background information: What do you notice? (See STG “What Do You Notice?” May 11, 2014) He then moves the questioning to a different level, after providing some historical context of both the period and the photo: What is the photographer’s “claim” in this photo? What was the photographer’s purpose in taking the photo? Who did the photographer want to see his photo? (Audience)

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The author also has students apply their photograph “reading” skills to paintings. Below is one of my favorite paintings—you could select any painting you want. (I suggest you Google it by title and look at carefully in a larger format.) In a classroom, I would want to project this to give students the opportunity for up close viewing/”reading. Start students off with the same progression of questioning—What do you notice? What “moves” does the artist make? Light/color? Perspective? Sense of scale—larger/smaller figures? Focus of the painting? Help the students out with some background about the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus—dad gives son wings held together with wax. Dad warns son not to fly too close to the son. The warning is ignored. Wings melt and Icarus falls into the sea and drowns. Now, move the questioning toward meaning—What is the artist’s claim? What is the artist trying to tell us about the world of myth and the real world where farmers have to plow their fields?

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“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A specific suggestion when using this painting is to introduce W.H. Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, (www.poetrybyheart.or.uk/poems/musee-des-beaux arts/) to help move their “reading” even deeper into meaning—What does the poet have to say about the painting? What “moves” does the poet make?

 3.Concern #1–Where the Reading Standards May Fall Short: Confining Students to the “Four Corners of the Text.”

When it comes to reading, I have always wanted my students to be able to “Read the lines” (Literal understanding), “Read between the lines” (Inferential understanding), and, importantly, “Read beyond the lines” (Evaluative understanding). I’m not sure how students will be able to make the leap to evaluative comprehension—making connections to their lives, the world, other reading, other experiences—without moving well beyond the “four corners of the text.” Here are a few of Kelly’s thoughts on this topic:

“The very reason I want my students to read core works of literature and nonfiction is so that they can eventually get outside the four corners of the text…Books worthy of study should be rehearsals for the real world.” (Page 50)

“I want my students…to spend as much time as possible applying their newfound thinking toward answering, ‘How does this book make me smarter about today’s world?’” (Page 51)

“If we teach students to think only inside the four corners of the text, we are telling them what not to think.” (Page 51)

4. Concern #4–Where the Reading Standards May Fall Short: There are NO reading targets.

“If your students are not reading a lot, it doesn’t matter what skills you teach them. Volume matters.” (Page 55)

On top of any books a student may be assigned to read in class, Mr. Gallagher sets a goal for his students to “read one self-selected book a month.” He has them track their reading on a “My 10” chart. (To download a copy of My 10 chart, look under Instructional Materials in the Resources section at kellygallagher.org.) As students complete a book, they meet with him and he signs off on their chart. Though he doesn’t provide a script for these brief conferences, I can imagine he has modeled the questions (What does the author say, do, mean? Personal reflections?) he might be asking to generate the conversation. I always asked my students to keep a weekly record of their reading—title of book, number of pages read, time spent, and where/when reading occurred. I wanted them to both create the conditions for a reading habit and be mindful of maintaining their habit. I can also imagine asking students to tout their choices in brief “book talks” as a way of sharing great choices with their classmates. Maintaining a record of your own reading to share with students and doing “book talks” about your choices is a an easy way to model and motivate. In the workshop I attended, Kelly quoted from his friend, author/educator Penny Kittle, “If they’re not reading and writing with you, they’re not reading and writing without you.”

For some help in building a classroom/professional/personal library, see Kelly’s Lists, in the Resources section at kellygallagher.org.

And of course, your pals here at STG have been recommending excellent books for teachers and students since 2010! Check out our archives. No dust!

5.Strength #3—The Writing Standards Value Process Writing

Imagine that! Writing process! Pre-writing, Sharing, Drafting, Sharing, Revision, Sharing, Editing, Sharing! Talk about “Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom!” (Remember—from the title of the book?) Mr. Gallagher reveals that, even for him, many of his students begin their time in his classroom as “…one-and-done writers. They write one draft; they are done.” Remind you of any students you might know? “I’m done—what do I do now?” “I like it the way it is.” Or the students that think a final draft is printing a second copy of their first draft. Kelly suggests that the “best way to help students internalize the value of moving beyond one and done is through intensive modeling.” (Page 66) That means providing models (and instruction) at each step of the process. Kelly describes this kind of modeling as “I go, then you go.” Yes, that means the teacher is an active writer, producing models for students. The teacher is the “I” and the students are the “you.” There will be more about using models and modeling coming up.

6.Strengths #4, 5, 6—The Writing Standards Sharpen Our Students’ Narrative, Informative/Explanatory, Argument Writing Skills

These are the “Big Three” writing genres emphasized and valued in the CCSS. Kelly fills chapter 4 with enough writing ideas to both pump up the volume (amount/frequency) of student writing and to “invite students to write longer pieces” in each genre.

Narrative Writing:

Moments That Matter—“Students are asked to consider the moments in their lives that really matter.” (Page 67) Kelly provides lists of his own brainstormed ideas (modeling) and lists of student generated ideas. Here are a few examples (Page 67)—

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

*The end of a friendship                                                *Moving in with my dad

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

And here are a few of the other ideas that Mr. G and his Students brainstormed lists for.

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

From A to B (Discuss how they “got from one place to another”)

Unprepared

After creating their lists, Mr. G models selecting a topic from his list, creates a draft, then leads students to do the same. (“I go then you go.”)

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

“The ability to inform and/or explain is a real-world writing skill I want my students to practice.” (Page 73) Here are just a few of the exercises he has created for his students (Pages 73-85):

Reverse Bucket Lists (the things you never want to do)

Six Things You Should Know About…(Borrowed from a column in ESPN magazine)

Your Birthday in History

Who Made That? (Explanations of how/where common items come from—borrowed from a column in the New             York Times Magazine)

After creating their lists, Mr. G models selecting a topic from his list, creates a draft, then leads students to do the same. (“I go then you go.”)

Argumentative Writing:

This is the type of writing (effective arguments) with the heaviest emphasis in the CCSS. In light of this, Kelly offers five key points of instruction/practice to bear in mind about argumentative writing. You’ll need to read the book for all five, but I want to share one that I have echoed with both students and workshop audiences. (The exclamation points are my addition.)

Key Point 4: Effective arguments do not come packaged in five-paragraph essays!!!

Arguments are not crafted in this way. An argument is much more than a claim followed by three reasons…The lameness of the structure diverts the reader’s attention from the argument itself.” (Page 96) What students need, of course, are strong models where the writer’s “moves” can be first noticed, then analyzed, and finally imitated.

7.Concern #1—Narrative Writing is Required But Undervalued

This is the flip side one of the CCSS strengths described previously. Yes, narrative is one of the big three genres called out in the standards, but it is gradually deemphasized as students move from K-12. Mr. Gallagher wisely suggests, “The best teachers, …doctors, …scientists, …taxi drivers, …and politicians have one thing in common: the ability to connect with people through storytelling. Being able to tell a good story is not a school skill, it is a life skill…” (Page 102) Mr. Gallagher believes that more emphasis should be placed on narrative writing, not less. Here are just a couple of his argument’s headlines:

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

(For more fuel to feed this fire, see STG posts from April 9, 2015, October 1, 2013, March 28, 2013, and April 5, 2012.)

8.Concern #3—There is an artificial separation between writing discourses.

The previous superintendent of my home school district here in Beaverton, Oregon, used to invite a group of recent high school grads to a luncheon during the winter holiday break. He made sure the group included students who were now attending a four year college or university, students enrolled at a community college, and students who were working but not currently enrolled in school. The purpose of the luncheon was similar to an exit interview—he wanted to know if these students felt like their BSD experience had appropriately prepared them for their current world of work or school. As a Board member, I was invited to participate. I asked these students specifically about how the kinds of writing their current situations demanded of them stacked up against their writing experiences as a Beaverton school student. Now, I know this is purely anecdotal “evidence,” but every year we met with students, I heard the same comments (I even checked the journals I kept while on the Board): “I wish we had done more narrative writing in high school.” “Writing in college is really a blend of styles.” “My on the job writing had to be both informative and personal, you know, relating to the people who were our customers.” Mr. Gallagher offers the example of the annual State of the Union address given by the President. In his 2013 address, President Obama told the stories of some of the young people who had died in gun related incidents. He was appealing to the people of the United States to work to change gun laws. Rather than simply supply data or go deep into the technicalities of law, the President included the stories of real people to strengthen the argument inherent in his speech. To help students, Mr. Gallagher offers them a graphic organizer when writing argumentative pieces. It has boxes for the writer’s Claim, Argument, Counter-argument, Response to the counter-argument, and (The Twist) a box for a Story—a personal experience of a person to strengthen the argument. (Page 110)

9. Elevating Students’ Reading and Writing Abilities: Using Models Because Models Matter

Chapter 6 is dedicated to the importance of using models in the instruction of both reading and writing. When it comes to helping elevate student writing, Kelly says, “Before they begin writing, they need to know what the writing task at hand looks like.” (Page 130) That means, of course, providing them with interesting, compelling, engaging examples of explanatory, argumentative, and narrative writing at each stage of the writing process. These examples can come from professional writers, you/the teacher, and also, of course, from classmates—both the best writers in the room and any students willing to offer their writing as models for discussion and feedback.

I want to leave you with two ideas connected to modeling—one from the workshop I attended and one from the book—and pass on warning form Kelly about models and modeling.

Austin’s Butterfly

Mr. Gallagher showed us a video called “Austin’s Butterfly” about the importance of emphasizing writing process and the value of models. The following images are the drafts of a butterfly drawing (a Tiger Swallowtail) done by first grader Austin. The first draft was done without the help of any models. Further drafts show the results of both seeing/studying a photographic model and receiving feedback specific what Austin had done well and what he could work on.

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You will find the video of Austin’s Butterfly, featuring Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning, on Youtube or Vimeo.

Modeling in the Revision Stage—Draft A or Draft B?

This classroom strategy is not only a favorite of Kelly’s, it’s also one of mine and something I first learned from my pal, Vicki Spandel. Asking students to compare two different drafts of a piece of writing (or even to compare two pieces of writing on similar topics) is all about getting students to understand what meaningful revision is all about. This isn’t about doing a quick “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This is about finding what is working in a piece of writing—the writer’s “moves”—and determining what is, specifically, not working for readers. In the workshop, Kelly used the acronym R.A.D.A.R.—Replace, Add, Delete, and Re-order—to label the revision decisions this kind of assessment leads writers to make, all for the sake of their idea. For the sake of making sure readers capture the writer’s meaning and feel the writer’s presence in the writing.

Finally, Kelly does offer two modeling caveats worthy of your consideration:

#1—Do not over-model

#2—Recognize the balance between the benefits of modeling and the danger of developing dependency

(Page 137)

I have provided you with a sampling of all the great stuff this book has to offer you and your students. It’s up to you now to find out the whole story.

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About the author . . .

I kind of spilled the beans about Kelly in the Background section above. To find out even more, go to www.kellygalagher.org or follow him on Twitter, @KellyGToGo.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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Coming up next, I will be sharing two non-fiction picture books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page—Creatures Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do and How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom. You won’t want to miss these, just in case you’ve been wondering why a giraffe’s tongue is purple or you’ve been less than successful at pig swallowing!

As you may have noticed, we’re featuring nonfiction writing (because we know you’re craving information about excellent informational reading for you and your students) this fall, and Vicki will be posting several reviews of incredible new nonfiction books for students throughout the fall.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter–@vickispandel, @jeffhicksSTG. And remember . . . to set up your very own writing workshop or a fun classroom demo involving your own students, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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A review by Jeff Hicks

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

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades K through 16

Features: Glossary.

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

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

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

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

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

Sixtraitgurus Posts:

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

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

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

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

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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“No More Hamburgers”—Something to Ponder…

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

*An Example

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

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

Robert Frost

“Only a Magician”—Resolving an Instructional Conflict

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

*An Example–

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

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“Voice”—The Reason to Keep Reading

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

* Examples–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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“Two Absurdly Simple Rules”

Author Newkirk offers this boiled down advice—

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

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

“Seven Textbook Sins”

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

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

* An Example–

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

www.heinemann.com/authors/902.aspx

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

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

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

 

A Caveat

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

 

Two Things to Notice

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

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

 

The Top 8

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

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

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

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

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

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

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

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

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

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

 

What kinds of purposes are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

Example 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

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

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

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

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

World without Fish

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

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

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

Teaching Leads

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

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

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

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

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

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

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

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

Harris and Me

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

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

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

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

The Animal Dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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

 

Teaching Detail

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

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

FEATURE 4: Structure

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

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

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

Main Point or Argument & Support

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

Revealing the Solution

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

Comparison and Contrast

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

Question and Answer

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

Grouping

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

Step by Step

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

Chronological Order

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

Visual Patterns

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

Point and Counterpoint

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

Recurring Theme

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

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

Planning Your Writing

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

Moonshot

Drama: A Different Organizational Design

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

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

Act 1

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

Act 2

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

Act 3

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

 

PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

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

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

Teaching Structure

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

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

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150

Resources

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

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

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

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

  • Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

Woodward-VickiJeff3249a

Introduction

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

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

 

The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

Does the topic matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is “logical” order anyway?

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

Logical order should also include these elements:

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

 

3 Additional Tips

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

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

 

What to Teach: 6 Essentials

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

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

 

Some final thoughts

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

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

 

 

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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.

Summary
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: http://www.doreenrappaport.com 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.

Definition
Word choice embraces all the words and phrases a writer uses to create meaning, imagery, or voice. With at least a quarter of a million words in the English language (depending on whether a word like rock is one word or several, based on how it’s used), there are multiple ways to say just about anything—unless highly technical language is required. So the focus with this trait is on choice: choosing words that suit the topic, the audience, and the writer’s intended tone or message.

Link to the CCSS
When you think about it, every single one of the Common Core standards for writing is related to word choice. After all, words are the tools we have for making meaning clear and organizing thoughts. In addition, though, several standards make specific reference to this critical trait.

Emphasis on word choice in the CCSS spans all genres, and is most clearly evident in writing standards 1 through 3, which spell out the following requirements (Note: We are paraphrasing here; for precise wording, please see http://www.commoncore.org):

For informational writing or argument—
1. Write in a formal style—which is also voice, but formality is achieved through language
2. Use appropriate transitions to clarify relationships between ideas
3. Use precise or domain-specific vocabulary—in other words, choose words wisely, and be comfortable with any terminology pertaining to the content area or topic

For narrative writing—
4. Use transitions to signal shifts in time or setting
5. Include relevant descriptive details
6. Include sensory details

A word about transitions
Transitions are achieved through language, obviously—e.g., words or phrases such as for example, to illustrate, however, therefore, in spite of this, first of all, a few days later, and so on. Words and phrases are not the only kinds of transitions we use, however. Sentences, paragraphs—even whole chapters—can serve a transitional purpose. Moreover, while transitions—bridges from idea to idea—are achieved through wording, they’re really more about organization. Good transitions enable readers to track the writer’s thinking, through examples (for instance), flow of time (the next day), emphasis (what’s more), parallel ideas (similarly), contrast (on the other hand), and more.

Teaching Word Choice
Vocab lists revisited. Traditionally, language has been taught through vocabulary lists, which are probably not terribly harmful (though memorizing them does eat up precious time), but probably don’t do a great deal of good, either. Unless . . . they are connected directly to reading. The difference is that isolated words on a list are quickly forgotten, while words in context are far more likely to be remembered. If students learn a few key words (say five, as opposed to twenty), then read text in which those words are used, both reading and vocabulary benefit.

Reading, reading, reading. Seeing and hearing language used well is key to vocabulary growth, so reading is essential. Students need to read both silently and aloud—and need to be read to, as well. This is true even for older students. Why? Because a skilled reader—e.g., a teacher or parent—uses inflections that bring out meaning. To many of us, reading aloud feels like a treat—the slice of cake after all the broccoli has been eaten. But actually, it’s one of the most valuable instructional activities available to us.

Revising. Good word choice isn’t just about acquiring new words, however. It’s also about using the words we know well. Everyday language comes to life in the hands of a skilled writer. But gaining this kind of skill takes practice. Writing every day is one way to get it. Here’s another: revising unclear writing. I do not mean the student’s own writing, either. If students only revise their own work, they will never get enough practice in revision because they simply don’t write enough. The world is filled with writing that is unclear, vague, or downright senseless. Be a collector of such writing, and ask your students to try revising it, a sentence or short paragraph at a time. They can work with partners or even in small groups to do this. They will enjoy it thoroughly, and their word choice skills will grow by leaps and bounds. (Watch our next post for one example you can use with middle school or high school students.)

RECOMMENDED BOOKS
Following are several of our favorite books for teaching and modeling word choice. We hope you like our choices, and we invite you to recommend some of your own.

Book 1: World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky. 2011. New York: Workman Publishing. Genre: Argument. Ages: 5th grade and up, including adults.

Summary
This offers one heck of a lot of instructional bang for your book dollar. By that I mean that you can use it to illustrate clarity, organizational structure, effective and precise word choice, and more–including presentation AND the art of argument.

The book is very appealing, in a whimsical, edgy sort of way. Kurlansky and his editorial team weave together photography, cartoon graphics, paintings and sketches, along with playful use of fonts and colors. The page design is brilliant. It’s meant to draw in young (sometimes reluctant) readers, and it does.
In addition, though, the book is written with a persuasive voice that is simultaneously appropriate and passionate. Kurlansky speaks as a man who means what he says. He writes with the confidence that only comes with knowing a topic extremely well, through firsthand knowledge and research. His is a voice of urgency that says to readers—albeit in a polite way—“Hey, listen up”:

The United States government said in a 2002 study that one-third of the 274 most eaten types of fish are threatened by too much fishing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says this is true of almost two out of every three types of fish they have studied in the world. The oceans are in serious trouble. (p. xxiii)

The book is filled with scientific terminology, but Kurlansky uses it gracefully, consistently making meaning clear from context (e.g., the term “Cambrian”): In the ocean, that would mean sea life returning to conditions 550 million years ago in a time known as the early Cambrian period—long before dinosaurs. (p. 5)

The chapters are carefully arranged to support Kurlansky’s argument that current fishing practice is dooming our oceans. He lays out the problem, explains how we got to this point, shows why previously posed solutions will not work, then suggests things we can do. The organizational structure is compelling—as are the details and documented research. You could literally spend a week discussing this book in the classroom, then ask students to draft a response either supporting or countering Kurlansky’s argument. Note: If you fish, enjoy eating fish, or are a supporter of marine life in general, you do not want to miss this book.

Book 2: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. 2001. New York: Ballantine. Genre: Nonfiction history, combining narrative and informational writing. Ages: Adult (but individually selected passages are suitable for upper elementary and beyond).

Summary
Hillenbrand’s book has won so many awards, it takes a full page to list them. All are deserved. This is a fine piece of research, but it has all the page-turning appeal of a great novel. It combines a remarkable portrait of 1930s America with the incredible story of a horse that became an American icon. Seabiscuit was small for a thoroughbred, and ran so badly early in his career that he did not seem destined to ever win a race. In what could be described as the perfect storm of horse racing, the destinies of three men—owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, and legendary jockey Red Pollard—came together and pushed the little horse to immortality. For a few years, America’s down and out public had something in which to believe.

Research. The book is incredibly well-researched, through reading (including the private scrapbooks of Charles Howard, “a wealth of newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, telegrams, and letters,” personal visits, and interviews (Notes, p. 349). If you choose to share parts of it with students, use a document projector to skim through the notes so students can see just how voluminous this research was. You may also wish to read sections from the Acknowledgments, in which Hillenbrand talks about how she gathered her information.

Word choice. In an interview a few years ago, I heard Laura Hillenbrand say that she likes to keep modifiers to a minimum in her writing, relying on the strength of precise nouns and energetic verbs to create imagery and meaning. Seabiscuit is a masterpiece of effective verb usage. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the book features numerous racing scenarios, all of which Hillenbrand recounts in a dramatic fashion that makes you feel you’re watching a film. Consider this passage describing the Santa Anita Handicap race in which three of the fastest horses in the world are pitted against one another:

Whichcee screamed along the rail, stretching out over the backstretch, trying to hold his head in front. Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges. Wedding Call tracked them, just behind and outside of Seabiscuit as they pushed for the far turn. They clipped through a mile in 1:36, nearly a second faster than Seabiscuit and War Admiral’s record-shattering split in their 1938 match race. Seabiscuit still pushed at Whichcee. Pollard, up in the saddle, was a lion poised for the kill. (p. 321)

Technical precision. As noted previously, Hillenbrand literally spent years researching Seabiscuit. As a result, she writes with knowledge and precision about the world of racing. For an outstanding example of this, see her extended informational passage on Thoroughbreds and jockeys, pages 70 and following. Notice how Hillenbrand manages with ease to accomplish the ultimate goal of good informational writers, which is to make readers feel like experts.

Book 3: Reign of the Sea Dragons by Sneed B. Collard III. 2008. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Genre: Nonfiction science writing. Ages: Fourth grade and up for independent reading; all ages for selected passages shared aloud.

Summary
For precise use of language—a quality emphasized in the CCSS—Collard’s books are hard to beat. (Check out this prolific writer online for a wide range of nonfiction books ideal for teaching and modeling informational writing at its best.) Collard uses words with care, and great accuracy. It is evident in each line that he wants readers to understand what he is saying, and he has a talent for making the complex clear and accessible. Consider this passage from the book’s introduction (noticing the pronunciation guides, so helpful to younger readers):

The elasmosaur and the Pliosaur belonged to an astonishing collection of reptiles that filled our oceans during the Mesozoic (MEZ-oh-zoh-ik) era, about 25 to 65 million years ago. Some of these reptiles, such as crocodilians and turtles, have familiar relatives that survive today. Most, however, were totally different from anything in our modern world. They included porpoiselike ichthyosaurs (IK-thee-oh-sohrs), the long-necked elasmosaurs, and enormous mosasaurs (MOSS-uh-sohrs) with curved daggers for teeth. Scientists often refer to these reptiles as sea dragons, and they include some of the most extraordinary, awesome predators the world has ever known. (p. 13)

If you’re thinking that last sentence is intended as an enticing transition, you’re right. This book is chock full of predators, prey, and conflict. Sneed, who is a friend, once told me, “You can’t just pile facts on people relentlessly—fact, fact, fact. They can’t absorb it, and they stop paying attention. You need a little drama mixed in there. Good writing has a rhythm to it. It goes more like fact, fact, fact, drama—fact, fact, fact, drama—like a dance.” This is why, when we teach students about genre, we need to make it clear that genres are not mutually exclusive. Good informational writing and argument make use of narrative examples to hold readers’ attention—but also to clarify meaning. We learn from informational writing, but the human brain craves story. (See Appendix A of the Common Core for a discussion of this.)

Research. You may wish to share “Learning More About Sea Dragons,” a summary of Collard’s research, aloud (p. 55). Encourage students to visit the websites listed on page 56—and to discover others on their own. Collard also includes a fine list of museums (pp. 56-57) that display sea dragon dioramas and fossils. The idea of visiting a museum or similar venue may broaden the way some students view research.

The book also includes an excellent glossary and index, both worth sharing with a document camera. You may want to discuss when such features should be included with a piece of writing. Are glossaries and indices just for books—or could they be important components of reports your students might produce?

Book 4: Amos & Boris by William Steig. 2004 (reissued). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Genre: Picture book. Ages: All. The book is directed at young readers, but adults love this book.

Summary
Like all of Steig’s books, this one has depth—and passion. It is a touching story of the unlikely friendship between the compassionate whale Boris and the adventurer mouse Amos, told in eloquent language. It is my all-time favorite picture book, and I have shared it with countless children and adults, and given away many copies as gifts.

Sometimes in our zeal to teach precision and technical correctness, we forget to help children appreciate the value of words used beautifully—like this:

One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. (Unpaginated text)

That’s flat-out gorgeous writing. Children who hear this passage for the first time have an immediate, intuitive connection to words like phosphorescent, marveled, luminous, immense, speck, vast, and akin. When it comes to expanding students’ vocabulary, the power of reading dwarfs anything lists and memorization can ever hope to accomplish.

We mustn’t forget that the most important things we teach cannot be captured in standards. If we do not teach students to love books, and to treasure some over others, then nothing else we teach them about the mechanics of word choice will matter very much.

Book 5: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. 2007. New York: Simon & Schuster. Genre: Fiction. Ages: Grade 5 and up. All ages for selected passages.

Summary
The CCSS calls for students to include sensory details in their narrative writing. No one does this better than Gary Paulsen, whether he is writing novels, short stories, or nonfiction accounts of his own experiences. All good narrative writers include visual details. What sets Paulsen apart is his talent for zeroing in on just the tactile, auditory, or olfactory details that make readers feel they are sharing an experience. Hatchet is filled with these. Brian, the hero, is particularly sensitive to smells, especially after being alone in the wilderness for some days—and knowing extreme hunger. In this passage, we not only picture the fish, but hear it sizzling over the fire and smell the aroma:

He cut a green willow fork and held the fish over the fire until the skin crackled and peeled away and the meat inside was flaky and moist and tender. This he picked off carefully with his fingers, tasting every piece, mashing them in his mouth with his tongue to get the juices out of them, hot steaming pieces of fish . . . (p. 127)

For a little contrast, read Paulsen’s account of eating turtle eggs—a lost person’s last resort (pp. 99 and following).

As you peruse Hatchet, it may hit you how easy it is to weave sensory detail into narrative involving food (just as athletic scenarios lend themselves to use of strong verbs, as in Seabiscuit). Encourage your writers to write a narrative involving the preparation or consumption of food—any memorable experience, good or bad, will do. There are two tricks to making this kind of writing successful: (1) go beyond the visual, including sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations; and (2) don’t hold back—include the ugly or unpleasant details along with the pleasant ones.

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
As promised, we’ll provide you with a passage much in need of revision with respect to clarity and word choice—and offer suggestions for using this in a revision lesson with students. Meantime, Happy New Year to each and every one of you. Thank you for stopping by, and please come often. If you enjoy our posts, please recommend them to friends. And remember, for the very best in writing workshops featuring traits, standards, writing process, and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Introduction

A recent post focused on connecting the trait of Ideas with the Common Core. This time around, we’ll look at Organization: ordering ideas to make them both clear and interesting. We’ll define the trait, link it to the CCSS for writing, and suggest favorite books to use as mentor texts in teaching important elements of Organization—including leads, endings, and transitions. As always, we encourage you to explore the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own; check out www.commoncore.org

Defining ORGANIZATION

One of my favorite quotations about writing comes from Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Indeed, writing needs internal structure to hold ideas together. Picture your living room. Imagine that “living room” is your big idea, and everything in it, fireplace to windows, beams to floors, rugs to lamps, is a detail. What you did with those details—how you arranged them, the overall impression you created, where you directed a visitor’s eye—that’s your organization. Organizational structure, whether for a room or a piece of writing, varies with purpose…

In narrative, good organization helps readers follow the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean things are told in the precise order in which they happened, however; good narrative often includes flashbacks or previews, or skips back and forth across time. The plot may bounce from one character’s perspective to that of another, as in Bull Run by Paul Fleischman. One way to assess effective organization in narrative is through our own sense of anticipation: Are we just dying to know what happens next? Matilda, in Roald Dahl’s book by the same name, grows very weary of having her parents tell her she is ignorant, when she is anything but—and vows revenge. The second chapter ends this way: “You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list” (Roald Dahl, Matilda. 1988. Puffin Books, p. 29). Just what does Matilda have planned for her overbearing, judgmental father? We can’t wait to find out—and that lures us right into chapter 3.

In informational writing, organization is designed to maximize learning by effectively ordering the myriad of details that emerge from thorough research on a focused topic. Imagine you were going to write a report on cockroaches. What subtopics might you cover—and how would you arrange them? Visualize a pyramid: main topic at the apex, major subtopics midway down (clusters of chapters), smaller subtopics at the base (individual chapters). To see an example of this organizational design, check out the table of contents for The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (1996 Ten Speed Press). You’ll find eleven subtopics (chapters) arranged under three major sections: Cockroach Basics (anatomy and history); Sex, Food, and Death (how they’re born, where they live, and what can kill them: cannibalism, wasps, millipedes—and the occasional lucky human); and When Humans and Cockroaches Meet (how cockroaches affect civilization, our efforts to control them—plus a fascinating chapter on cockroach pets). This informational pyramid makes it simple for us, as readers, to find what we’re looking for: e.g., How long can a beheaded cockroach survive? Good informational writers turn chaos (random piles of details) into purposeful design—and that takes skill. As Gordon explains, “This book contains the collected wisdom of several hundred individuals—entomologists, pest control specialists, psychologists, filmmakers, novelists, historians, fine and folk artists, and a few of my close friends” (vii). (Sidebar: Gordon’s book is also an exemplar of GREAT informational voice, and is jam packed with some of the best leads and conclusions you’ll find anywhere. One of my favorites (from “Gastronomy,” p. 97): “What do cockroaches eat? Well, what’ve you got?”)

Organization is vital to the success of an argument. Readers want to know straight off what the writer’s position is (so this often pops up right in the opening paragraph), and immediately after that, they want substantive evidence to back up the writer’s claim. At that point—and this is one important way in which argument differs from other forms of informational writing—they also want objections addressed. What does the opposition have to say, and what makes the writer’s argument stronger than theirs? Good arguments usually close with the very most compelling evidence the writer can muster, and/or recommendations for action, or revised thinking about the issue at hand. Consider these lines from the closing chapter of Our Planet (MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte, 2008, p. 141): “It sometimes gets lost in the talk about the number of wildlife facing extinction, trees being clear-cut, and ice caps melting, but there is a very real human face to global warming. We see it every time someone with asthma struggles to get a deep breath. We see it in those places where food or water is scarce and people are starving. We can even see it where people are fleeing from war.”

Following are the key elements of Organization:

  • A strong lead
  • An easy-to-follow flow of ideas
  • Clear transitions
  • Effective pacing
  • A satisfying ending

All five elements are embedded in the Common Core.

 

Organizational Words & Phrases within the Common Core

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core are directly connected to the trait of Organization. Look in particular for the following—

introduce a topic or text; organizational structure; ideas are logically grouped; logically ordered; supported; link ideas; related; concluding statement; group information logically; headings; concluding statement; clarify relationships; appropriate transitions; transition words, phrases, and clauses; cohesion; previewing; unfolds naturally and logically; sequence; pacing; orient the reader; smooth progression of events

Here are two specific examples from the Common Core (grade 5 and grades 11-12) that show this language in context. Please note that we are condensing and paraphrasing here; we ask that you refer to  www.commoncore.org for precise wording.

 

In grade 5, students are developing their organizational skills . . .

W.5.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped
  • Link opinion and reasons
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Group information logically
  • Link ideas using transition words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in addition, despite all this, to illustrate)
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Orient the reader
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally
  • Manage the sequence of events through varied transitional words, phrases, and clauses
  • Provide a conclusion that follows logically from those events

By grades 11-12, those skills have become more sophisticated . . .

W.11-12.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce the claim or claims
  • Create an organization that logically sequences claims, counter claims, and evidence
  • Use transitions to link ideas as well as major sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that supports the primary argument

W.11-12.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic
  • Make sure each new element builds on what came before
  • Create a unified whole
  • Use appropriate transitions to link ideas and sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that suggests the implications or significance of the topic

W.11-12.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Engage and orient the reader by setting up a problem or situation
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Create a smooth flow of events, using strategies suchas pacing
  • Sequence events in a way that creates coherence
  • Sequence events so they build toward a particular outcome
  • Provide a conclusion that follows from the story and offers resolution

Check out parallel writing standards (1 through 3) for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above to see how close the link to the trait of Organization really is.

Teaching to These Standards

Now for the instructional side! If you were going to put this complex trait in a nutshell, these are the things you’d want to teach—

  • Great leads that set up whatever follows (argument, discussion, story)
  • Strong transitions that tie ideas or sections of text together
  • Structure—ways of presenting information, whether that means comparison and contrast, main point and detail or support, step by step, chronological order, point and counterpoint, or something else
  • Pacing—spending time where it counts by lingering over parts that require attention, and gliding quickly through (or over) anything obvious or less relevant
  • Effective endings that wrap up a discussion or story, and leave a reader feeling satisfied

Following are some of our favorite books for teaching these important organizational elements.

 

GREAT BOOKS for Teaching Organization
as Presented in the Common Core

 

3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .

1. Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam. 2001. Little, Brown and Company. Informational. Elementary and up.

This book has traveled the country with me. I use it to teach detail, voice in informational writing, effective use of terminology, and exceptional formatting (the illustrations by Alan Male are excellent). It’s also a great book for opening discussions on organizing informational details because its structure is so easy to follow, even for young writers. Don’t hesitate to use it with middle or high school students, though; it’s entertaining enough for adult fans of spiders.

As the Common Core standards suggest, good informational writing begins by setting the stage for the discussion to follow. This means, usually, starting with a broad overview to introduce the topic, then zeroing in on specifics. You couldn’t have a better book for illustrating this approach. Notice the content of the first chapter: “A Dozen Spiders Plus One That’s Not.” It opens with one of my all-time favorite leads: “People who create computer Web sites to attract attention are borrowing an idea millions of years old. Even before there were dinosaurs, spiders were luring insects to their web sites” (p. 4).  Facklam goes on to tell us a little about spiders in general—“No matter where you are, there is a spider not far away” (p. 4)—and to share a number of intriguing details, including how many insects they eat, just how many spiders inhabit the world (you’ll be surprised), and the many ways they use their remarkable silk. What she does not do is tediously summarize details about the dozen spiders to which she’s about to introduce us. She meticulously avoids retracing steps—saving each detail for just the right spot. That’s good organization.

The second chapter (we’re still setting the stage here), “Spider Parts,” focuses on the anatomy of the spider, introducing us to technical terms, like Arthropoda, exoskeleton, cephalothorax, chelicerae, pedipalps, and spinnerets. Now we know enough about spiders as a whole to move in for close-ups of twelve species—plus the one that’s not (you may not guess what that is without reading the book). For beginning writers, that may be enough to share: introductory chapters followed by one detailed chapter for each species. Clean, straightforward organizational structure. With older writers, though, look deeper . . .

Notice that each species-specific chapter opens with one or more fascinating details about that particular spider—then goes on to share related knowledge about spiders in general. Chapters are short and content-rich, so the pacing is outstanding. For example, we learn in chapter 3, that the Garden Spider (pp. 6-7) attaches a ribbon to its web, presumably to ward off small birds that might otherwise become entangled. But we also learn how spiders build webs, why they don’t get stuck in them, and (most fascinating of all) how spiders in space become temporarily disoriented, and until they can re-orient themselves, spin webs that are a tangled mess. Who knew? (Teaching tip: When you share a multi-chapter book, check out leads and conclusions from each chapter, not just those that open and close the book as a whole. Notice how often you find the very best details within these opening and closing lines.)

2. Guys Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka. 2005. Viking. Memoirs by famous writers. Grades 5 through high school.

What a superb collection of mini (one- to two-page) life stories. This lively, sometimes zany, anthology offers a wondrous opportunity for students to get to know some favorite authors (Avi, Ted Arnold, Edward Bloor, Bruce Brooks, Chris Crutcher, Jack Gantos, Will Hobbs, Brian Jacques, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck, Jerry Spinelli, Laurence Yep, and many others) a little better.

The book is filled with voice, and is great fun to read silently or aloud. Some essays are wildly comic, others more poignant. Their brevity and no-holds-barred content (many are clearly aimed dead center at a middle school audience) will pull in many a reluctant reader. Boys in particular love this book. One thing these essays have in common: great leads and endings.

You can use the book to illustrate the power of both because it’s easy to read six or seven leads—or endings—in just a few minutes. Here’s a tip you won’t find in the Common Core: When the ending echoes the lead, it’s an almost sure sign that what falls in the middle has coherence. Check out this example from the essay by Bruce Brooks called “E, A Minor, B7.” It opens this way: “There was only one thing you did in eighth grade, and I did it. I played in a band” (p. 42). I love that lead. It has focus but also a bit of comical anti-climax (Band? Seriously? That’s what you were leading up to??). Brooks hearkens back to this endearing, self-deprecating moment with the “now-we’re-more-worldly” tone of his ending: “We were right: at the start of school the next September, these guys were still together . . . But now they were losers. Bands were eighth grade. Nobody played in a band in ninth grade. Ninth grade, it turned out, was about girls” (p. 44). Well, that’s more like it. That’s also brilliant. A good ending does follow logically from what’s gone before, as the Common Core requires—but a brilliant ending points to the future, and makes you want to read on. (Teaching tip: Have students identify leads or conclusions from their own reading that they find especially effective. Which leads would encourage them to read on? Which endings are satisfying, like a good dessert—and which leave them unfulfilled? Create a class collection and talk about which leads/endings speak to you. By the way, my all-time favorite ending is from Charlotte’s Web; if you haven’t read it in a while, have a look.)

3. Years of Dust by Albert Marrin. 2009. Penguin. History/Informational Writing. Grades 6 and up. Appropriate for adults.

Award winning author Albert Marrin has a talent for making nonfiction ring with voice, and for sifting through oceans of meticulously researched details to identify what is most important. This book is also brilliantly organized—more on that in a moment.

Notice the formatting straightaway. This is the story of the Dust Bowl, told through text, mind bending photos, newspaper clippings, journal entries from those who lived it—even song lyrics from people like Woody Guthrie. After appreciating the sheer beauty and scope of the book (you will want a document projector to share the stunning, often shocking, photos), take time to talk about how this author took literally thousands of details and worked them into a coherent whole. Discuss the challenge involved, and strategies Marrin used.

In his riveting introduction, he gives us a hint about his master plan: “This book aims to tell the story of the Dust Bowl disaster. It is really two stories. The first focuses on ecology—the natural world of the Great Plains. The second story is about how people invited disaster by changing the ecology of the Great Plains: “assaulting” might be a better word” (p. 4). Two stories = two main parts to the writing. Therein lies a great lesson in how to deal with an overwhelming number of details: Step back and get the big picture first. Ask yourself how many subtopics or chapters your BIG topic spans. Begin there, remembering that you will need to leave some things out.

Study the Table of Contents and you’ll see a definite, purposeful progression. Marrin begins with a shocking look at just how severe the Dust Bowl was—total “Darkness at Noon.” This whole chapter is his “lead,” and it is gripping. He means to startle us, and he does. Then, he shifts back in time a bit, giving us a picture of life on the prairie before dust storms erased nearly everything in their path—through chapters titled “The Great Plains World” and “Conquering the Great Plains.” We learn more about the ecology of the plains—and just who those “conquerors” really were. (Authors’ note: We usually think of leads as an opening line or two, but a lead can run a whole paragraph, page—or chapter.)

At this point, the book switches directions: Early ranchers, cowboys, and unscrupulous buffalo hunters were followed by farmers (“The Coming of the Farmers”), a group with a strong work ethic and close family ties. Unfortunately, their farming practices—replacing the native grasses that had held the land together for centuries with cash crops like wheat and corn—aggravated the worst drought in our nation’s history, and created, in part, conditions that led to the Dust Bowl. The illustrations accompanying this section of the book will have you gasping for air yourself. The graphic, heart-wrenching tale of these farm families culminates with the chapter titled “Refugees in Their Own Land.” Marrin’s conclusion has two parts: “The New Deal,” a summary of how America dealt with this crisis; and “Future Dust Bowls,” chilling projections about the very great likelihood that similar catastrophes could occur, not only here but elsewhere in the world. It takes an extraordinary writer to put this much information into a design we can follow with ease. If I could award a prize just for organizational know-how, I’d give it to Albert Marrin.

I chose to include this book not only because of its masterful overall design, however, but also because it’s one of the best books ever for illustrating the power of transitions. Thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all beautifully connected. Here’s one short passage (from page 16) in which I’ve underlined the transitions to help you see what I mean (Read this passage aloud without the transitions to hear the difference):

Wherever a grasshopper cloud set down, it cleared the ground of plant life. All you could hear was the sound of countless jaws CHOMP, CHOMP, CHOMPING until nothing remained to eat. Young children, caught outdoors, screamed in terror as the insects’ claws caught in their hair and bodies wriggled into their clothing. On railroad slippery with crushed grasshoppers, trains could not start, or, worse, stop. Yet, since grasshopper jaws could not get at their roots, the native prairie grasses always grew back.     

 Years of Dust is among the best books of our time—an ingenious blend of genres, written from a strong research base and told with unforgettable voice. If you’re looking for that “just right” note for informational writing, here it is. (Teaching tip: Informational writing is designed to answer readers’ questions. We can use this bit of insight in planning. As students are preparing to write an informational piece, suggest that they list 3 to 5 questions a curious reader might have about their topic. Each question can become the focus of a paragraph, section, or chapter—depending on the length of the document. This is an easy but extremely effective way of getting large numbers of informational details in order.)

 

4 of Jeff’s Favorites . . . 

1. The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller. 2002. Henry Holt and Company. Informational. Grade 1 and up.

As Vicki said about one of her recommendations, this book, The Scrambled States of America, has traveled the country with me. I use it with younger students to teach detail, voice, and most importantly, organization. Yes, it’s a wonderful introduction to some basic United States geography, but at it’s core, the story being told is about finding the best, most logical way to fit each of the fifty states together into one whole country. Kansas is feeling a bit isolated and complains to his good friend Nebraska, “I just feel bored…We never DO anything, and we NEVER meet and NEW states!” They decide to throw a party and invite all the states to come. (Be sure to look closely at the detailed artwork, also by Lauire Keller to see what each state brings to the party, and to “hear” their chitchat—very funny.) Idaho and Virginia suggest that the states switch places so they could see a new part of the country, and this is when the scrambling begins. There’s great picture of the states all crammed into their new arrangement—Minnesota switching with Florida, North Dakota sliding into Texas’s spot, Arizona moving to the east coast, and so on. But of course, this organizational system doesn’t work—Minnesota didn’t bring sunscreen and Florida was freezing up north, and poor Kansas, who had switched with Hawaii, was now stuck by his lonesome in the middle of the Pacific without any neighbors at all. To solve all the problems, they decide to pack up and move back to where they belonged.

Logic, order, and chunking of like-information are the building block components of writing for our youngest writers. Books like this are a motivating way to teach students to think organizationally by helping them learn to ask themselves questions—What should I say first? Does this sentence connect to the one that comes before it? Does everything fit together, including my pictures? Young writers may begin to think of their writing like a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces—sentences, details, ideas—naturally, logically, and comfortably fit together.

(Note: The Scrambled States of America may also be purchased in a set with a matching jigsaw puzzle or as a board game, with more of an emphasis on each state’s geography. Very fun!)

2. The Vermeer Diaries: Conversations with Seven Works of Art by Bob Raczka. 2001. Millbrook Press. Informational/Historical Fiction. Elementary and up.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to rave about any of Bob Raczka’s books. Though each of his books has a focus on art, they bring readers into the world of art he so obviously loves by very different paths. That’s right, his books are not all organized the same way. Here’s Looking at Me: How artists See Themselves, focuses on self-portraits and is a series of short essays about different artists. No One Saw: Ordinary things Through the Eyes of an Artist, uses rhyming text to emphasize how each of the featured artists viewed the world. And, Unlikely Pairs: Fun With Famous Works of Art, is a wordless book, juxtaposing two works of art on opposite pages to suggest a startling/humorous/revealing relationship between the pair. (These are just a few of his books.)

The Vermeer Diaries follows its own organizational design, as well. This book is a series of interviews/conversations, not with artist Jan Vermeer but with the subjects of seven of his paintings answering question from the author, Bob Raczka. In his introduction, the author tells readers, “Most of what we know about Vermeer, we have learned by studying his paintings…I wanted to know more about them. So I decided to interview a few of my favorites.” (p. 3) Here’s a little of the back and forth from Bob’s conversation with the milkmaid from Vermeer’s painting, The Milkmaid.

BOB: Do you have a favorite detail in this painting?

MAID: Well, since you ask, I do love the broken windowpane.

BOB: Wow. I’ve seen this painting dozens of times and never noticed that before.

MAID: That’s what I love about it—the fact that most people don’t see it. It’s one of those little things that makes me feel at home. (p. 7)

Each conversation begins with a large sized reproduction of the painting in question, and sprinkled around the pages are smaller photos of maps, tools, etc. pertinent to the conversation. This book, like each of his books, is a worthy example of a creatively designed structure, tailor made to the author’s purpose—he wanted to know more about the artist by getting the subjects to talk. A conversation, in the form of an interview is the perfect structure to deliver information to readers and allow the author to keep the pacing lively. Readers, imagining the subjects speaking with them, stay interested and focused on the secrets being spilled. Imagine your students choosing this structure to demonstrate learning, as an alternative to a traditional report format.

3. New Found Land by Allan Wolf. 2004. Candlewick. Historical Fiction. Grades 4 and up.

Think about the last time you finished reading a book you just loved and had to tell someone about it. “You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o ____________!” Of all the words you might have used to complete this glowing recommendation, organized is probably not one of them. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized! Though it may be true, the comment has an odd ring to it. Does this mean that as readers we take strong organization for granted? Perhaps. Or maybe it just means that we understand that when a piece of writing is well organized (refer back to the bulleted list of key elements of Organization above), readers are able to focus on what is most important, the writer’s ideas. Organization’s role is to create structure yet stay behind the scenes and help make sure the spotlight stays shining brightly on the author’s story or information, the real star of the show. When a writer creates an organizational structure that is too clunky and obvious about being organized, the focus strays, leading readers away from the big ideas and details—

I am writing a report about Lewis and Clark. In my report I will tell you four things about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about is some background information about Lewis and Clark. The second thing I will tell you about is who else went with them. The third thing I will tell you about is the kind of danger they faced. The fourth thing I will tell you about is what they discovered.

In my first paragraph, I will tell you some background information about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about Lewis is that his first name was Meriwether. The first thing I will tell you about Clark is that his first name was William… 

As a reader, I call this “bumping into the beams.” The writer is so self-aware of the structure being built, that readers become hyper-aware and are forced to slam into the beams at every turn—Oh! I’m reading a reportLet me guess—right after your second thing…Yes! There it is! The third thing! Now, I’m going to go out on a ledge and go all-in that just around the corner is the fourth thing…Bingo! (We can even predict the ending—I hope you have enjoyed my report on Lewis and Clark…Bump! Slam! Ouch!) When this happens to readers, the spotlight is not on the writer’s big idea—the story and characters, or the thesis and support—but on the organizational structure. In a well-organized piece of writing, the structure goes undercover, guiding readers gently, not pulling them by their noses.

Allan Wolf’s book, New Found Land, is a great example of historical fiction brought to life through a thoughtful, purposeful organizational design that gently and creatively guides readers along the amazing journey of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. The guiding begins with the table of contents, which clearly lays out the book’s path—six parts broken down into a logical progression of chronology and westward geographical progress. Readers are also given a preview of the extensive Notes section (which includes significant background information, glossary, further reading suggestions, and historical references), an important (yet subtle) signal to the historical foundations of this fictional story. Like a play, the book begins with a cast list of all the key players whose voices we will hear—Sacagawea, Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, York, Oolum, the alter-ego of Lewis’s Newfoundland dog, etc. And then, like a good history, readers come across a map, one of several placed throughout the book to both locate and keep us on the trail of the story. And with the turn of the page, the real surprise is revealed, the writer’s design for telling his story. The author is going to let the characters tell their stories and reveal their perspectives in moments—poetic monologues, dialogues, letters, and reflections that are connected but not directly linked like a story told in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters would be. (Think Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, or Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.) Readers move down the trail of the big story—the overall expedition—transitioning between the moments of each character’s individual story as easily as turning your head to face the next speaker during a dinner table discussion with family members.

This book is filled with all the information of a research paper, yet its organizational design delivers it to us in a more personal, memorable way, and the spotlight remains fixed on the story, characters, and events—the stars of the show. Use this book in your classroom though, to give a standing ovation curtain call to the crew who put the show together—all the elements of Organization. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized!

4. Animals in Motion: How Animals Swim, Jump, Slither, and Glide (and other titles in the Animal Behavior series: Animals Hibernating, Animal Senses, Animals and Their Young, Animals Eating, Animals and Their Mates, Animals at Work, Animal Talk, etc.) by Pamela Hickman or Etta Kaner. 2000 et al. Kids Can Press. Informational. Elementary and up.

Many of our younger students are information hounds, sniffing out books to feed their need to know more about their favorite animals, dinosaurs, cars, or periods in history. Whether they are reading every word or browsing, these students are soaking up the facts, statistics, diagrams and photos filling the pages. Now, as we ask students to do more and more informational writing, beginning in early grades, I’m always on the lookout for books to help students make the jump from consumers of information (readers) to producers of information (writers). Animals in Motion: How Animals swim, Jump, Slither and Glide (as one example of the great books in this series) is a perfect resource to help young writers do just that—become writers of informational text. Even the full title of the book serves as an example of how to break down and organize a broader topic into significant subtopics. Readers will see in the Table of Contents that the book is broken down into sections telling more about different types of animal locomotion: Swimmers and floaters, Fliers and gliders, Runners and walkers, Hoppers and jumpers, Slippers and sliders, and Climbers and swingers. In each section, readers are encouraged to find points of comparison between the ways various animals move and the ways they move through their world. The Swimmers and floaters chapter, for example, begins with a focus on beavers. Following an introduction, readers are asked to imagine themselves as a beaver:

If you were a beaver…

  • you would have webbed hind feet to help you swim.
  • your broad, flat tail would help you steer through the water.
  • you could close tiny flaps in your nose and ears when you dive so that water couldn’t get in.
  • you would have a set of see-through eyelids, like goggles, that close over your eyes to protect them while you are underwater.
  • you would spread special oil from your body over your fur to make it waterproof. (p. 7)

This serves as a great model for students to use in their own writing—helping readers make connections to the information you, as the writer, choose to include. It shows student writers the value (and option) of serving readers information in bulleted lists, which in this case, is also an effective format choice to engage them in your point of focus. Each chapter includes an introduction, a section like the one above, detailed drawings, and frequently, an experiment they could do at home (or in the classroom) for even greater understanding and insight. These also serve as great examples for students of another organizational structure, step-by-step/how-to/directions. Flipping through the pages of these books will remind both you and your students that engaging informational writing is not about following one, rigid structure, but is often accomplished by a blend of structures and format choices.

Authors’ Note: Remember that there are countless ways of organizing information (even though we usually limit ourselves to teaching just a few of them—chronological order, step by step, comparison-contrast, and so on). So in teaching this complex trait, share as many writing samples as you can, always asking your students, “How did the writer organize this? What strategies did he/she use to make this easy to follow?” And don’t be surprised to find several (or more) organizational designs all used within the same document!

Coming up on Gurus . . .

In an upcoming post, we’ll share ways to link the CCSS with the traits of VOICE and WORD CHOICE. We’ll be including favorite books for one or both traits. Also look for a preview of Vicki’s soon-to-be-released sixth edition of Creating Writers, which now features sections on the Common Core. Thanks again for making time to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

Introduction

How close is the connection between the Common Core State Standards for Writing and the Six Traits of Writing? Somewhat close? Pretty close? Try VERY. In fact, virtually every standard references one trait or another. That’s because the traits are simply qualities that make writing work, and making writing work is the primary focus of both the traits and the CC writing standards.

Two traits, Ideas and Organization, stand out particularly strongly within the first three writing standards (those dealing with genre).However, Voice plays an important role in grades 6 through 12, under the guise of “formal style and objective tone” as well as writing effectively to connect with an audience. And Word Choice is repeatedly cited under “precise language” and “domain specific vocabulary.” As you might expect, Word Choice also receives much attention within the Language Standards—along with Conventions and Sentence Fluency.

Over the next several posts, we’ll help you understand these important connections, focusing on the first four traits (Ideas, Organization, Voice, and Word Choice), and sharing some of our favorite literature for teaching traits AND standards-based skills. Here’s something to feel confident about: If you teach the six traits, you ARE teaching standards-based skills, without doubt. (See for yourself by exploring the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own, at www.commoncore.org)

In this post, we’ll focus on the trait of IDEAS, and see just how closely this trait is embedded within the Common Core. Let’s start with a definition . . .

 

IDEAS: What’s this trait about?

Ideas are everything you think, imagine, remember, know inside and out, and share with readers. Think of the trait of ideas as your reason for writing.  In narrative writing, ideas take the form of a story. In informational writing, your information IS your idea. In argument, ideas comprise your position and all the evidence you can summon to support it—or refute the other guy’s claim. Following are the key elements of this trait:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy or authenticity
  • Strong main idea, position, or storyline
  • Details, details, details
  • Expansion and development

Sound familiar? Of course. You’ll find this language everywhere throughout the Common Core.

 

QUICK PAUSE for . . . A Close-Up Look at Details

Before going further, let’s explore the concept of detail. Oh, that’s an easy concept, you’re thinking. Actually, for many students, it isn’t. In their writer’s brains, they see the complete picture of their story, information, or argument clearly. They struggle as writers because they don’t have the foggiest idea what we mean by the word “detail”—and consequently, they don’t understand what we mean when we ask them to explain, provide evidence, support their position, expand an idea, “be specific,” or “tell us more.” What on earth are we talking about?? What more could we want to know?? Well . . . we’re talking about details . . . which could take the form of—

  • Sensory details: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings
  • Quotations: what someone else had to say about a topic
  • Observations: firsthand information from the writer’s own experience
  • Facts: names, dates, measurements, data, findings, and other specifics
  • Images: clear descriptive pictures (of a person, a scene, an event) that help readers “see” what a writer is talking about
  • Definitions: explanations of difficult terms or concepts a reader might not know
  • Examples: specifics that support a generality—e.g., kinds of prey animals, people who hold world records, top 10 French foods, qualities of Olympic champions

Detail is the difference between this—

The fireman liked looking at fire.

—and this—

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor, playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 50th Anniversary edition, 1981, p. 3).

If you’re familiar with the CCSS, you already know that details of various kinds are emphasized across all genres. So teaching students ways of creating detail within their writing gives them an important leg up on (1) developing a topic (as the CCSS require), and (2) holding a reader’s interest—something essential to writing success in and beyond school.

Structure of the Traits—versus Structure of the Standards

Here’s an easy way to think about how traits and standards are linked . . .

The Six Trait Model is organized across writing concepts or qualities: ideas, organization, voice, and so on. The CCSS model is organized across three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. The traits are embedded within and are an integral part of each of these genres. Or, to put it another way: Traits are the qualities that make writing strong within any genre.

Words to Look For

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core link directly to the trait of Ideas. You’ll know you’re talking about this foundational trait when you come across any of the following:

argument, accuracy, topic, claim, evidence, opinion, information, events, details, information, reasons, focus, definitions, develop or development, descriptions, knowledge, concrete details, quotations, examples, sensory details, story, point, clarity, clarify, clear writing, coherent writing, summarize or paraphrase information, gather information from credible sources, demonstrate understanding, logical reasoning, valid reasoning

For example,

In kindergarten . . .

W.K.1 (argument) requires students to tell about a topic and state an opinion about that topic.

W.K.2 (informational writing) requires students to name a topic and share information about that topic, through drawing, writing, or dictation.

W.K.3 (narrative) requires students to narrate an event or series of events.

By grade 8 . . .

W.8.1 (argument) requires students to write an argument supported by clear reasoning and evidence, using accurate, credible sources—and to refute counter arguments.

W.8.2 (informational writing) requires students to not only introduce a topic but develop it through facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, examples, and other credible information.

W.8.3 (narrative) requires students to develop events and characters through various literary techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description.

Check out writing standards for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above, and you will see how close the link to Ideas really is. Now, let’s think about the instructional side of things. Following are some of our favorite books for teaching this trait and all the Common Core skills related to it.

 

GREAT BOOKS for Teaching
Ideas and Related Common Core Skills

Remember that you don’t always have to share a whole book aloud. Often, you can make a terrific point about clarity or detail through one short, well-chosen passage. And if students choose to read the whole book on their own so much the better.

 

3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .  

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. 1952. HarperCollins. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

E.B. White’s beloved classic is a masterpiece of detail. Consider the opening to Chapter III, “Escape”: “The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows” (p. 13). This passage goes on to tease our senses with other aromas until we feel we’re right there in the barn with Wilbur and his companions. White teaches us that by focusing on one kind of sensory detail (smells), we can create a vivid sensory experience. It’s interesting to know also that White spent considerable time observing spiders in order to write with authenticity. Though this is by no means an informational text, it does—like any powerful narrative—depend on the author’s in-depth knowledge of his topic. Check out Chapter V, “Charlotte,” and see if your students learn anything new about spiders. Make a list of the informational details White weaves into his story. One last thing: Good stories have a message, a main idea. Just what is the message we’re meant to take from White’s unforgettable story?

2. How Fast Is It? by Ben Hillman. 2008. Scholastic. Nonfiction informational essays. Grades 4 through 8. Adults love this book, too—thanks to Hillman’s extraordinary collection of facts.

One of the most important concepts we can teach young writers is how vital it is to have a clear main idea—and to connect important details in some way to that main idea. You could hardly do better than this book for teaching that lesson. Every essay in the book (there are 22, and each runs only a short page) relates to one common theme: speed. We learn just from the table of contents how many things depend on speed to function well—from computers to cheetahs, race horses to light. But what’s particularly fascinating about the book is the research behind it. Hillman has taken time to dig for the right details (meaning they’re intriguing and new to many readers), so he can share information like this: “The cheetah also has extra-light bones to keep it nimble; oversize lungs, liver, and heart to enable sudden bursts of energy; large nasal passages for quickly inhaling large amounts of oxygen . . .” (p. 21). We learn something with almost every line. This book is an invaluable resource for illustrating how powerful detail can be in giving informational writing both believability and voice.

3. Our Planet: Change Is Possible by the MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte. 2008. HarperCollins. Nonfiction persuasive and informational essays. Grades 5 through high school.

Argument can be challenging to teach because it’s hard to get our hands on good examples. This terrific little book abounds with persuasive topics that discuss and promote ways of “going green” in our everyday life through thoughtful choices involving cosmetics, food, television, spare time, social life, health—and more. The arguments consistently promote a eco-conscious lifestyle, and do so in a no-punches-pulled manner that make it easy to see what the writer’s position is: “Avoid skin products made from petroleum. You wouldn’t go to the local gas station and douse yourself in gas, so why would you slather it on in your bathroom?” (p. 13) Arguments are readable, filled with voice, and backed by specific, well-researched data. The writers are also good at exploring alternate points of view and distinguishing myth from fact. The presentation makes this book highly inviting and also makes the information accessible even for younger readers. It’s a winner.

3 of Jeff’s Favorites . . .

1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 1994. St. Martin’s Griffin. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

I recently re-read this classic (originally published in 1908) and was blown away again by both the characters and world Kenneth Grahame imagined for readers. To create both the setting and inhabitants of his story, Grahame has to paint close-up, detailed pictures for the story to come to life for readers. Early in the story, Rat introduces Mole to the wonders of life on the river with a boat ride and picnic: “Leaving the main stream, they now passed into what seemed at first sight like a little land-locked lake. Green turf sloped down to either edge, brown shaky tree-roots gleamed below the surface of the quiet water, while ahead of them the silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir, arm-in-arm with a restless dripping mill-wheel, that held up in its turn a grey-gabled mill-house that filled the air with soothing murmur of sound…It was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both fore-paws and gasp, ‘ O my! O my! O my!’” Mole’s reaction is one shared by readers. We are also immersed in these precise details, stirring each of our senses. O my! is right! Grahame’s story is replete with detailed descriptions of not just the river and surrounding fields and underground burrows. Picnic basket contents are brought to life with figurative language: “…a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried…” Even supporting characters, like the Water Rat, are drawn with the kind of precision that reveals both physical and personality traits: “…his paws were thin and long, his eyes much wrinkled at the corners, and he wore small gold earrings in his neatly-set, well-shaped ears.” It’s clear that Grahame, like E.B. White, knows a great deal about the water, land, and creatures he writes about. Your students will know that, of course, moles, rats, frogs, and badgers don’t actually speak, wear clothes, or drive cars, like the characters in the book. After meeting Mole in the first chapter, have your students do a little digging (pun intended) about real-life moles—what about the character of Mole is authentic or based on factual information? Students may even want to further to find out the story behind the story—where did the author’s original idea come from? As Vicki suggested with Charlotte’s Web, “Good stories have a message, a main idea.” That message is the author’s reason for writing in the first place. What message does Kenneth Grahame want your student readers to take away from his animal story?

2.Wild Delicate Seconds by Charles Finn. 2012. Oregon State University Press. Short, nonfiction informational essays. Intended for high school to adult audiences, but passages could be used across all grade levels and content areas.

Charles Finn describes the contents of his book as a collection of nonfiction micro-essays—one to two pages in length, “…each one a description of a chance encounter I had with a member (or members) of the fraternity of wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home.” Each piece is an exemplar of the many forms details might take in writing: sensory details, quotations, observations, facts, images, definitions, and examples. The author gathered information through close, purposeful observations of each animal, and recorded his descriptions and experiences in journals to be crafted later into these focused essays. From Bumble Bees: “I sit watching the bees, their inner-tube bodies overinflated, their legs like kinked eyelashes hanging down. The white noise of their wings soothe me…” From Water Ouzel (also known as dippers, my favorite bird): “The tiny bird dips and dunks…It is tiring to watch: knee bend, knee bend, knee bend, tail twitch, dunking, tail twitch, kneebendkneebendkneebend…” And from Western Toad (offering a counterpoint to The Wind in the Willow’s automobile loving character, Toad of Toad Hall): “It has eyes cowled like headlights, Popeye forearms, and skin that sags. It could be a burp from a tuba.” Finn’s perspective is that of a scientist/poet/storyteller/teacher and clearly, a lover of wildlife. These micro-essays will have a macro impact on your young writers.

3.They Called Themselves the K.K.K. : The Birth of an American Terrorist Group  by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Nonfiction informational/argument/persuasive. Intended for middle and high school students.

If you think about it, from the perspective of the writer, all writing is persuasive. A writer’s job is to persuade readers, from their first sentences, to begin and then continue reading. And they do this, especially in the informational and argument genres, by beginning with a strong main idea and demonstrating immediately to readers that they are experts on their topics. Susan Campbell Bartoletti convinced me of her expertise from the get-go. Her idea for the book, she explains, came from seeing a statue commemorating Confederate general and the first K.K.K. Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest: “’I asked myself: Where are the statues commemorating the victims of Klan violence?” In her A Note to the Reader, before her book actually begins, she tell readers: “You will read the stories of the Ku Klux Klansmen and their victims from a variety of sources, including congressional testimony, interviews, and historical journals, diaries, and newspapers.” She goes on to let readers know that we will see images, cartoons, drawings, and photos from newspapers and personal collections. The author even offers a warning that to be true to the topic and historical time period, readers may experience crude language and offensive/disturbing images that she has left uncensored. I believe the author’s underlying purpose is to inform readers, and because of her balanced, meticulous research, she absolutely leaves readers well informed, enriched, inspired, and thoroughly persuaded about both “…the difficulty of reform…” and the “…terrible things that happen as people stand up for an ideal and strike out against injustice.” This book is a tremendous resource on a difficult topic.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for ways to link the CCSS with the trait of ORGANIZATION. And within the next few weeks, we’ll also link the writing standards to VOICE and WORD CHOICE, including reviews of favorite books each time. So—welcome to a new school year. Thanks so much for taking time in your busy schedule to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Perfect Square by Michael Hall. 2011. New York: HarperCollins. Unpaginated. 

Genre: Picture book that’s part adventure story, part philosophical essay

Ages: Primary and up. The text is minimal and easy to read/understand on a literal level. But the story is thought provoking enough to engage older readers of all ages.

Features:Bright primary colors, super large print, collage art

Summary

Here’s a book with a most unusual hero: a red square. In the beginning, the square is perfect—or is it? It has matching corners and equal sides, just as any square should. So . . . what more is there to wish for? Well, as they say, life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans—or perhaps while we’re just standing around being, uh, square. Life hits this shapely hero rather hard, in a series of unforeseen events that have potentially disastrous consequences, but wind up pushing this clever little geometric character into some imaginative ways of coping. On Monday, for example, the square is cut into pieces and poked full of holes. Sounds bad. But it’s actually an artistic opportunity in disguise, for the square gamely transforms itself into a bubbling fountain. And so it goes—through a week’s worth of colorful adventures that force the square to get more creative by the day. Things come to a head on Sunday, when nothing much happens, and our foxy hero is disappointed to be left hanging about in its original, now old-hat shape. Luckily, the artistic lessons of the previous week have not been lost on the tough and savvy square, who comes up with a brilliant and satisfying solution.

The story line is eminently simple; but the story beneath the story has both depth and universal implications: In making the best of misfortune, we grow not only wiser and more courageous, but also (perhaps ironically) increasingly dissatisfied with our former lives and selves. And for the spunky among us, it seems, life’s little speed bumps are the very things that make the journey interesting.

Author Michael Hall is an award winning graphic designer, and the art has an elegant simplicity that gives the book enormous eye appeal.  

If you’re looking for literature to introduce very young readers/writers to the narrative basics of the Common Core Standards (for both reading and writing), this is your book. It’s short enough to read more than once, engaging enough that your students will enjoy that, and deep enough to prompt good discussions about difficult days and the consequences of our reactions. It would also make an outstanding graduation gift or coffee table book.  

 

In the Classroom

  1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. Read it more than once, and give yourself time to think about the implications of this deceptively simple plot.
  2. Common Core. Prior to sharing the book with students, you may wish to refresh your memory about the Common Core requirements relating to narrative reading and literature, as well as narrative writing. The Common Core asks young readers to notice and discuss characters, settings, and major events within a story. In particular, this is a book in which character (a square that becomes very creative) and events (both challenges and solutions) play a major, ongoing role. Young narrative writers are asked to demonstrate writing skills relating to sequence, detail, use of temporal words, and a strong sense of closure. Because Perfect Square so beautifully illustrates each of these, it’s an ideal model for showing young writers how such elements contribute to a strong narrative.
  3. Sharing with students. We recommend using a document projector, if possible, when sharing this book. The illustrations tell much of the story, so you’ll want to make sure everyone can see them clearly. Take your time reading, though, so students can make . . .
  4. Predictions! One of the very best things about this book is that Hall doesn’t rush through the story. He tells just a little bit at a time, and in a way that follows a pattern: On Monday, this happened, and here’s what the square did about it . . . On Tuesday, this happened, and here’s what the square did about it . . . This pattern beautifully illustrates the concept of sequence (see item 6), and also allows students to guess (1) what will happen next, and (2) how the square will deal with this latest challenge. Each challenge is different, so the square’s creativity is continually tested.
  5. Character (Common Core reading). What is the square like? What do we know about it? Does it change through the course of the story? Talk about this with your students. (You may wish to point out that characters often change in stories, and this is something interesting to listen for—not just with this book, but with any good narrative.) Also—did your students notice that the author always refers to the square as “it”? Why? We are used to calling characters “he” or “she.” Even storms often have male or female names. Ships and countries, cities and schools are usually referred to as “she.” But the little red square is “it.” What do your students think? Why might the author make this choice?
  6. Sequence of events. More than one thing happens in this story; indeed, many things happen. Hence the term, “sequence” of events.This is a handy expression for young writers to know because it makes it easy to talk with them about plot. After reading the story the first time, see how many events your students can recall; they may or may not recall them in order. Remember that each event has two parts: what happens, and what the square does about it. A sequence of events should be easy to follow—and should also have a main event (high point, turning point) that stands out. Is that true of this book? What stands out? Many students may say that the most striking (or important) event occurs at the end of the story when the square, no longer satisfied to be “perfect,” transforms itself into a window. This truly is the turning point—but, how do we know that? After all, the square does many amazing things. What’s so special about the window episode?
  7. Temporal words. Temporal words signify the passing of time and help link events in a reader’s mind. Ask your students to listen for words that tell when something happens in the story. (On Monday, On Tuesday, etc.) If they are currently working on narratives of their own, ask them to look for “time” words (or words that tell when) in their own writing: words like Later, The next day, In a while, Next, Then, In a few minutes, Just then, After that, and so on. Together, brainstorm a class list to help students keep the concept of temporal, or time, words and phrases in their minds. Talk about why words like this help readers follow a story.
  8. Closure. “Closure” is another good word to teach young writers. It refers to the end, of course, but it also implies that the ending is satisfying. It feels right. It answers some of our readers’ questions. A good ending sometimes comes as a surprise, but it usually shows that the main character has changed or grown or learned something important. Is that true in Perfect Square? If so, what has the main character learned? Is this an ending we could say has closure? To help your young writers understand this, try to imagine a different ending. Suppose, for instance, that at the very end of the book, the square were crumpled into a ball—and then could not figure out what to do. So nothing more happened. Would that ending have closure? Why not?
  9. Message. In a good narrative, the author is usually trying to teach us something. What could this author be trying to tell us about life? Have students write their opinions about this.
  10. Behind the scenes. Someone or something keeps interfering with the red square’s life: cutting it into strips, punching holes in it, tearing it into scraps, and so on. Who or what is doing this? (Though there is no right or wrong answer to this, students love speculating about it, and may come up with intriguing possibilities.) Also, does someone help the square come up with solutions to its various predicaments—or does the square do this all by itself? Is this important? What do you think the author might be trying to show us?
  11. 11.   Feelings. On Sunday, nothing happens. Suddenly, the four sides of the square feel “confining.” Discuss this with your students. What does “confining” mean? Have they ever felt this way? When or why? Also notice that the square’s corners suddenly feel “rigid and cramped”? What do these words mean to your students? Talk about why the square experiences these feelings at this point—toward the end of the book—when it once felt just “perfect.” What caused such a change?
  12. Verbs! This book has what one student called “verby power”—which is to say, it makes good use of verbs: babbled, giggled, torn, shredded. Talk about what a verb is, and have students listen for and identify a few of the verbs they notice. What, specifically, do verbs add to writing? Have students close their eyes as they listen to some of the verbs. What do they picture in their minds? Have them describe what they see. Who has a favorite verb from this book that he or she might use in a piece of personal writing?
  13. Creating . . . art & text! This book makes young writers just itch to do an art and writing project of their own. You might begin with red squares—or with any shapes, any color. Students may also wish to change shapes or colors as they go along, so provide plenty of colored paper if you can, and show them how to tear it carefully, or consider providing Kraft Edge scissors if you have them. Encourage students to think inventively in choosing shapes to work with: hearts, pumpkins, snowmen, mountains, wheels, leaf piles, kites, clouds, anthills, tree trunks, etc. Maybe a book. Anything that can change and reshape itself. Give students as much freedom as possible to invent both problems and solutions for their main “characters.” Beginners might try just one problem and solution, while more adventurous and/or experienced writers may want to do a whole series (a sequence of events, as in the book).  
  14. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). As human beings, are we anything like the square? If so, in what way? Have students write about this and explain how or why the square might remind us of a person.
  15. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). Is the square more “perfect” at the beginning of the book—or at the end of the book? What does the author mean by “perfect” anyway? Ask students to write an opinion piece about this.
  16. Opinion (Common Core argument writing). Some online reviewers think adults might like this book as much as young readers. Do your students agree or disagree? Ask them to write an opinion piece about this. You may wish to post some responses online.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up soon, look for reviews of John Green’s stunning young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, followed by a close-up look at the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin. As always, we’ll help you make connections to both traits and the Common Core Standards. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you enjoy our posts, please tell your friends. Remember, for the BEST teacher training seamlessly blending traits, standards, workshop, and writing process, call 503-379-3034. Give every child a voice.

A Really Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. 2008. New York: Delacorte Press. 161 pages.

Ages: Written primarily for middle school and up, but appealing to readers from upper elementary through adult.

Genre: Informational, emphasizing astronomy, physics, and some history.

Summary

Curiosity may have killed off a cat or two, but it definitely breathes life into informational writing—as evidenced by the work of noted author Bill Bryson. This new edition of Bryson’s bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything has been condensed and adapted for younger readers—and the result is a book that makes physics and astronomy accessible not only for students, but for many adult readers as well. The ambitious title comes from the fact that the book deals with nothing less than the origin of the universe itself—and goes on to address major cosmic questions like these: Is there an “edge” to the universe? How many solar systems are there? How old is the earth? What are the odds of any living thing becoming a fossil? What happened to the dinosaurs? Does time have a shape? Should we fear asteroids? What pushed ocean living creatures onto land? Are we headed for chilly times—or a big warm-up?  These and literally hundreds of other related questions are tackled headlong through Bryson’s obvious passion for science and exploration. The style is conversational and snappy; chapters are short, easy to digest, and amply illustrated, both with striking photos and comical (often enlightening) cartoon drawings. Bryson’s primary goal is to give us a memorable and readable overview of how our universe, solar system, planet, and species came to be. No single topic is explored in great depth; but for the “big picture” (and I do mean big), this book is hard to beat. Most striking is Bryson’s obvious fascination with his topic. As he says in his Foreword, “Whether you are talking about how the universe began from nothing, or how each one of us is made up of trillions of mindless atoms that somehow work together in an agreeably coordinated fashion, or why the oceans are salty, or what happens when stars explode, or anything at all—it is all amazingly interesting. It really is.” There’s a lesson here. The capacity to find your topic “amazingly interesting” leads to supremely good writing.  You won’t find that stated anywhere in the Common Core standards—yet it just might be the single most important thing we can teach our young informational writers.

In the Classroom

There are several ways to use a well-written informational text such as this one:

  • Use it as a source of information students can then use to write their own essays, summaries, or commentary.
  • Discuss strategy, considering how the writer chooses details, organizes information, or makes technical passages appealing and understandable.
  • Use selected passages (or chapters) as models.

Following are suggestions for incorporating various forms of these three approaches, while emphasizing skills specified in the Common Core Standards:

  1. Reading. This would be a very long book to share aloud in its entirety, but if you preview it, you will find many favorite chapters to choose from. And since each chapter runs only two pages (Bryson sticks to this consistently), it’s fairly easy to share a chapter as an introduction to discussion or a writing lesson. Note: If you teach science and want additional background, by all means check out the parent book: A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, New York: Broadway Books.
  2. Presentation. Though presentation is something we often discuss last, in this case, it’s a good place to begin. That’s because the layout of the book is both visually appealing and thoughtfully integrated with the text. Notice the playful chapter head fonts, the various kinds of illustrations, the generous use of subheadings that make smaller topics easy to locate, and the ample use of white space (open space) that makes an occasionally technical discussion look easy to read. Be sure to use a document projector if you have one available.
  3. Topic.  Notice the title of the book. Normally, we caution students to keep their topics small and manageable. This is anything but! Did Bryson go too far . . . or, does he find a way to handle this seemingly infinite topic?
  4. The set-up.  If you’re familiar with the Common Core Standards for informational writing, you know that they call for skill in setting up a discussion. Share the early chapter, “How do they know that?” to see how Bryson does this. What do your students think? Is he successful?
  5. Developing the topic. The Common Core Standards for informational writing also require the writer to develop or expand the topic through “facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.” Does Bryson do a good job of this? In answering this question, you might begin by scanning the Table of Contents, to see what general sub-topics he covers. Then, as you share and discuss individual chapters, look for the ways in which Bryson develops or expands his topic. In other words, does he rely on facts? Definitions? Concrete details? Or—other means? Or does Bryson, in fact, meet ALL the criteria of the Common Core?
  6. Organization. Organization that promotes readers’ understanding is highly valued in the Common Core. One might think that organizing a book about “nearly everything” would be an all-but-impossible task. Of course, the book isn’t literally about everything—it has focus, meaning that some topics (cooking, pet ownership, European architecture) cannot be included. But in scanning the Table of Contents, pay attention to what Bryson discusses first, next, and last. See if your students can identify a pattern. Would they have organized anything differently? Left something out? Added something? Moved things around?
  7. Background and summary. What do your students know from previous reading (or other research) about the so-called Big Bang? How do they think of it? What existed prior to this point—and afterward? Share the chapter called “The Big Bant” (pp. 6-7). Then, ask students to write a summary description of the “Big Bang.” Was it really a “bang” like an explosion—or something more complex and subtle? Is it still going on today?
  8. Detail. One of the hallmarks of great informational writing is its capability to teach readers new information. In this book, we learn some astonishing things: e.g., gravity emerged within “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang” (p. 6). What other details are truly standouts—things that are definitely not common knowledge, and that we might not learn from a typical textbook? Make a list. Encourage students to include at least one such detail in each piece of their own informational writing.
  9. Research. It’s startling (if not downright hilarious) to note that critics of A Really Short History have suggested that Bryson has not adequately documented sources for his information—“not that we don’t trust him,” as one put it. True, this book does not have footnotes or endnotes. But surely, author Bill Bryson is not just making things up as he goes along—or trusting to memory . . . is he? Indeed, he is not. Begin by discussing research strategies with students. Where do they suppose Bryson got most of his information? From interviews? Reading? Personal experience? Actually—all of the above. For documentation, see the book on which this one is based, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In that earlier edition, Bryson thoroughly documents his research, beginning with the Acknowledgments (pp. vii to ix). He also includes an impressive set of Notes (pp. 479 to 516). Indeed, Bryson’s Notes are longer than some books. He also offers us a lengthy bibliography (pp. 517 to 527). Secondary students or others wishing for additional information (or further expansion of ideas) should consult A Short History, using A Really Short History as a kind of introduction.
  10. Voice. Critics are almost never happy, it seems. But some have actually complained that this book is not as humorous as some of Bryson’s work. Really? Well, it’s challenging to make jokes about the periodic table or the Richter Scale. But at the same time, Bryson has a wry wit, and a good sense of the absurd: “Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of kilometres [British spelling] to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in the English countryside, or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a truck on a lonely road in Arizona, but it does seem unlikely” p. 20).  So—what sort of voice is this anyway? After sharing a few passages aloud, ask your students to respond to this question, also discussing how voice influences the effectiveness of informational writing. Most students should notice, among other things, that Bryson is extremely enthusiastic about his topic. His voice is a mix of enthusiasm, excitement, curiosity, and confidence. How does this affect the way we as readers respond to the message?
  11. Word choice. Not all readers regard this book as highly technical; in fact, they’re very divided on this issue. What do your students think? Remember that another hallmark of good informational writing (and an integral part of the Common Core Standards) is the writer’s ability to use the language of the territory with skill and grace—and to make readers comfortable with any terminology necessary to a discussion of the topic at hand. Perhaps Bryson is so good at this that we hardly notice how many technical terms he is using. To check it out, have a look at the Index (pp. 162ff.). How many terms listed here would be familiar and comfortable without the author’s help? Consider . . . alchemy, australopithecines, calderas, cryptozoa, Doppler shift, eukaryote, exosphere, foraminiferans, hadrosaur, KT extinction, Manson crater, nucleotides, Pangaea, plate tectonics, red-shift, riwoche . . . to name just a handful. See if your students can identify passages in which Bryson makes word meaning clear through direct definition or from context (the way the term is used).
  12. Conventions. Let’s hear it for the bulleted list, bold print, and enlarged print! These elements, which may also be considered part of presentation, are clearly favored by the design editor. See if you can identify passages in which these or other design features make a difference in readability.
  13. Argument. The Common Core Standards for argument place great weight upon evidence, proving (to the best of your ability) that your assertions are accurate. With this in mind, consider author Bill Bryson’s arguments for the age of the Earth—estimated (according to sources for this book) at about 4.5 billion years (p. 74). What evidence exists to support this estimate? Is that evidence clearly and thoroughly presented here? Are you and your students convinced? In answering this, look particularly closely at the following chapters: “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 38), “Finding Earth’s age” (p. 40), “Slow and steady does it” (p. 44), “Finding fossils” (p. 46), and “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 74). Given the evidence available, what is the best educated guess for the age of our planet? Write about this.
  14. Argument. Some chapters of this book might be regarded as a bit scary—or at least troublesome. In one somewhat controversial chapter (“Yellowstone Park,” pp. 86-87), Bryson writes about the Yellowstone caldera, noting that the park is “full of unstable magma that could blow at any time” (p. 87). In others (pp. 90-94), we learn of the very real possibilities of Earth’s being hit by an asteroid (or indeed, more than one). Some readers feel that this information is too alarming to share with young readers. What do your students think? Is it questionable or important—even imperative—to include such information in a book intended for younger readers? Draft a short argument taking a position on this.
  15. Ending. One requirement of the Common Core Standards for informational writing is a strong ending. Look carefully at the chapters “Humans take over,” “What now?” and “Goodbye.” What sort of ending does Bryson provide for his discussion of our cosmic history? What challenges does he present? On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong do your students think this ending is? Why?
  16. Predictions. In two chapters, “Hot and cold” and “Chilly times” (pp. 142-145), Bryson suggests that the Earth has experienced alternating periods of extraordinary cold—and surprising tropical warmth. Where we are headed now is unknown, he says: “Only one thing is certain; we live on a knife edge.” Using information from this book or other sources, ask students to make an educated guess about where we might be headed.
  17. Survival—and more predictions. Throughout Earth’s history, certain species have shown an extraordinary capacity for survival. Discuss this with students. What characteristics enable some species to sustain life when others go extinct? Which species have been the most successful? Do humans have the necessary characteristics to survive indefinitely here on Earth? (To extend your discussion of this topic, check out Joyce Sidman’s incredible book, Ubiquitous.)
  18. Argument. Bryson’s ending to this book leaves us with an unmistakable challenge. He clearly states (p. 160) that if you were to put someone in charge of the cosmos, “you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.” Citing evidence from this book and other sources, ask students to write an argument defending or rejecting this point of view. Consider research that goes beyond reading, perhaps interviewing someone like an astronaut, biologist, botanist, astronomer, anthropologist, or sociologist. Ask students to think creatively about when and how they assemble evidence to support their point of view.
  19. Theme. This is clearly a science book, not a discussion of philosophy or religious perspective. Yet, throughout the book, Bryson refers to the “miracle of life.” From a scientific perspective, what does he mean by this? How does this theme influence the message and voice of the book?
  20. Questions, questions, questions . . . Bryson opens his book with a suggestion that his research was an effort to answer questions that bugged him as he read other books—the ones he didn’t find all that exciting (p. 3)! What questions remain for your students at the end of this book? Brainstorm a list. Then ask students to identify one question as the focus for personal research (a major focus for Common Core informational writing standards). Remember to emphasize all forms of research—not just reading, but also interviews, site visits, personal experience, and so on.

Note: Other books by Bill Bryson include In a Sunburned Country, Made in America, At Home, Neither Here Nor There, A Walk in the Woods, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is known for his in-depth research, meticulous attention to detail, unbridled curiosity, and almost unmatched ability to infuse even technical passages with voice.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Did you know Julia Child fancied cats? Look for a review of Minette’s Feast, a delightful and unusual book you’re sure to enjoy. We’ll also be talking in coming weeks about the often underrated importance of narrative writing. And we’ll continue making connections to the Common Core as we go along. Please remember, for the BEST in workshops integrating traits, standards, literature, process, and workshop, phone us at 503-579-3034. See you next time, and bring friends! Give every child a voice . . .