Tag Archive: CCSS



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



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.


“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.


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.


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.



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.


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)


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?


“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”)


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.

imgres-4 imgres-5


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.


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 . . .


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.



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.)


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.


“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


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.


“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–


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.


“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


“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–


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)


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


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.



Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Welcome back!

In this post and the last (and the next!), we’re looking for ways to make writing instruction related to the Common Core Standards manageable. One way to do that is by focusing on essential writing features common to all three CCSS umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. In Part 1, we considered four features:

  • Purpose and audience
  • Detail
  • Leads
  • Structure

In Part 2 (this week), we’ll look at Features 6 and 7:

  • Transitions
  • Wording

And in Part 3 (coming up right after Thanksgiving), we’ll review the final two:

  • Conclusions
  • Conventions (and Presentation)


A Reminder

As a reminder, please read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. Now—on to transitions and wording (aka, word choice)!

 FEATURE 5: Transitions

A writer’s thinking is not always easy to follow. Transitions help. They form bridges between ideas, paragraphs, or chapters, orienting or alerting the reader, and guiding him/her from thought to thought to thought. Here are just a handful of things transitions can do—you and your students can no doubt think of many more:

  •  They can link periods of time: Later, In an hour, Momentarily, Just minutes before, The next day, Years later, At that moment, While we slept, As we watched, During the night, As the tide came in, During the Pleistocene Period . . .
  •  They can orient us spatially: On top of the bureau, Behind the door, Across the street, Just beyond the fence, At the back of the room, By my side, In the underbrush, Above her signature, Below the lake’s surface, Within her peripheral vision, On the other side of the world, Across the galaxy . . .


  •  Transitions can signal a reversal or contrast: However, Although, To everyone’s surprise, Unexpectedly, Surprisingly, In contrast, Despite all this, Shockingly enough, Unbelievably though, On the other hand, To look at things another way . . . 
  •  They can show cause and effect: Therefore, As a result, Because of this, Since this happened, For this reason, Consequently . . .
  •  They can set up an example or quotation: To illustrate, For example, As one person put it, To see how this works, In one instance, Repeatedly, In the words of one expert, As research now shows us, Results of the study suggest . . . 
  •  Transitions can also indicate support or emphasis: In fact, In addition, Besides, Indeed, Moreover, Furthermore, As everyone predicted, What’s more, To no one’s surprise, Unquestionably . . .

As the preceding examples show, transitions are not always single words—though they’re often depicted that way on lists. In fact, transitions can be multi-word expressions, whole sentences—even paragraphs.


One of my favorite paragraph-long transitions is the ending to the fourth chapter in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography, Boy. We’ve just been introduced to Mrs. Pratchett, proprietress of the candy shop, “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry” (1984, 33). After just two pages, we not only know her; we despise her. How can we help it? She dishes up fudge by digging into it with her blackened fingernails. So we’re not surprised by this end-of-chapter confession—which is a masterful transition into the chapter that follows:

So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.

The perfect bridge between before and after, this brilliant transition sums up how the children feel, and offers us a hint of what’s to come. The mouse is a tease, like a quick peek at the weapon in a murder mystery, and it’s delightful that the words “dead mouse” come at the very end of the paragraph. We’re humming along, reading about schemes that don’t work, and bam, the writer drops a dead mouse right onto the page in front of our noses. Perfect. Dahl doesn’t tell us what he and his friends planned to do with the mouse because that would kill the suspense. We can imagine, of course. And to find out if we’re right, we must read on.


Having a conversation. Transitions can be taught in a very mechanical way, as if each and every sentence should open with a transitional word, phrase, or clause. This results in extremely unnatural writing, as illustrated by this example from an eighth grade writing assessment:

My best friend is John. The reason he’s my best friend is because he’s good company. Another reason is that he’s nice to me all the time. Also, we’ve known each other for more than two years. Secondly, my parents enjoy having him at our house. Even more, we look alike. Next, we have many things in common. Another thing—we get along. Also we like the same girls. Secondly, many girls like us, too . . .

There’s more—but you get the idea. Sometimes transitions are essential, but this writer is building suspension bridges where stepping stones would do the trick.

A less formulaic way to think about transitions is that they help a writer have something approaching a conversation with the reader. If we were really having a conversation right now, chatting over coffee and biscotti, I would be watching your body language and facial expressions to see if you were following my train of thought—or if I needed to repeat, expand, or rephrase something. In writing we can’t do that, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to make the trail of our thinking as easy to follow as possible.


Consider the following explanation of how modern mathematics began with the simple concept of counting. It’s from Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife (2000, 6). I’ve underlined the transitional words to make them stand out—but you’d notice them anyway:

It’s difficult for a modern person to imagine a life without zero, just as it’s hard to imagine life without the number seven or the number 31. However, there was a time when there was no zero—just as there was no seven and 31. It was before the beginning of history, so paleontologists have had to piece together the tale of the birth of mathematics from bits of stone and bone. From these fragments, researchers discovered that Stone Age mathematicians were a bit more rugged than modern ones. Instead of blackboards, they used wolves.

(Wolves? More about this last line later.) To fully appreciate how much these transitions add to the writer-reader conversation, try reading the Seife passage aloud without them. Hear the difference? It still makes sense, but it’s jarring, abrupt, terse. Without transitions, we lose that sense that a thoughtful writer is leading us through the discussion—not forging ahead with the flashlight off.

Gaia Warriors

Fill in the blanks. One of the best ways to teach transitions is to ask students to fill in the blanks. Try it. I’ve left the transition out of the following sentence from Gaia Warriors, Nicola Davies’ nonfiction text on global warming (2011, 13). How would you begin this passage?

____ you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Was it obvious? Or did you need to think about it? Sometimes, there’s more than one possible sensible answer. But usually, there are many answers that would make no sense. This is why transitions matter. They point the reader in one direction, and if we change them, we point the reader somewhere else. For example, imagine this passage beginning with any of the following: Until, Because, Whenever, Although. All of these tamper with the meaning. Here’s the author’s original:

 Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Medusa and Snail

OK—that was just one word. For more of a challenge, try this one from Lewis Thomas’s essay “On Warts” (The Medusa and the Snail, 1995, 77). Warning—this transition is a multi-word phrase (not that you have to match Thomas exactly):

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, __________________ , they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

Maybe you’re thinking—hey, wouldn’t but or however or nevertheless work? Yes—they would. But those words wouldn’t direct our thinking as much as Thomas wants to. Here’s what he wrote:

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.


Connecting two sentences. Think how much we learn from Thomas’s few transitional words. Transitions aren’t throw-aways; they carry meaning. Here’s another exercise to try. Fill in any transitional word or phrase(s) you like to connect the following two thoughts:

Hank loved Irene. He wondered if she loved him back.

Here are a few possibilities—all slightly different in meaning:

  •  Oddly enough, Hank loved Irene, but often wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, but after finding the gun, wondered if she loved him back.
  • For a time, Hank loved Irene. During those few months, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, though it was hard. Every time he ate her pot roast, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, even if she was a humble turtle. He wondered if she loved him back.
  • To the best of his ability, Hank loved Irene. In his own pitbull fashion, he wondered if she loved him back.



 TEACHING Transitions

Following are six things you can do to teach transitions to students:

  1.  Have a transitions treasure hunt. Ask students to find (and list, as a class) as many transitions as they can within a specified period—say, ten minutes. Look through textbooks, literature, business writing, ads (they’re FILLED with transitions), newspaper articles, your school’s publications, or any other sources. Mix it up. I guarantee that the resulting list will have a much more lasting impression than any pre-published list you can post.
  2. Talk about a few of the transitions on your list. Don’t go crazy. If you go through them all, one by one, you and your students will soon find transitions tedious. But if you pick out three or four of the most interesting, and ask, “What does this show? What sort of bridge is this?” you will help students understand the nature of transitions. Be sure you ask students to read the sentence (or paragraph) from which they pulled the example. This helps put things into context.
  3. Look for extended transitions. The transitions at the ends of paragraphs aren’t always brilliant or even noteworthy. But sometimes they are. Sometimes, that final sentence guides us right into the next paragraph. So check for those end-of-paragraph guiding sentences. (For a perfect example, re-read the Seife paragraph on counting that ends with the sentence Instead of blackboards, they used wolves. Wouldn’t you like to know why? or how? Gotta read that next paragraph!) Good authors also know that there’s no handier time to stop reading than when one finishes a chapter. Only really strong transitions (like Roald Dahl’s reference to the dead mouse) can keep us turning pages when we feel like stretching or reaching for a chocolate.
  4. Play the missing transitions game. Keep it simple. You might choose an example with only one transition missing. Here’s an easy one from the chapter on Mrs. Pratchett—there’s only one missing word. What would make sense here? “Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg-yolk. It was her hands, ______, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime.” Remember, the question is NOT What did Dahl write? But rather, What makes sense? What builds the bridge? Hint: It’s one of the following: therefore, however, in conclusion, delightfully enough, for example. If you said however, you heard the contrast. That’s the bridge. Would your students hear it?
  5. Don’t forget to comment. When one of your students makes a clear, definite connection, one that changes the meaning of a sentence or helps you easily make the leap to the next paragraph or section, say something like this: Thanks for helping me make that connection! This makes an impression, and is infinitely more powerful than the more familiar negative comment—How on earth did you get to this point? Where’s your transition?
  6. Find another way to say it. For many students, the word transition has a kind of technical sound that dehumanizes it. Try connection, connecting words, bridge, link—or something similar. Once students understand how transitions work, they’ll appreciate them more in their reading, and using them in writing will come naturally.


On Writing Well 

FEATURE 6: Wording

Overview. “Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” So said William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (2006, 34). I love this bit of advice, but admittedly, we might have to modify it for the CCSS, perhaps amending it to read this way: The race in writing is not to the swift but to the clear and precise. (Note: For a full picture of what the CCSS demand with respect to word choice, be sure to check not only writing standards per se, but language arts standards as well.)

With respect to word choice, the standards emphasize such things as the following:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Appropriate use of relevant terminology
  • Use of words that link ideas (covered under transitions)
  • Comfort with figurative language, such as metaphors or similes
  • Use of descriptive language or sensory detail (in narrative)

Language can be formal or informal, and as with all writing features, needs to change to suit the occasion. We don’t wear tuxedos to the beach or flip-flops to the wedding. Sometimes it shifts within a single sentence, as in this line from the Introduction to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times (2005): “The intensity of poetry, its imaginative fervor, its cadences, is not meant for the triumphant executive, but for people in a jam—you and me.” Keillor swings gracefully from lofty to humble, elegant to chatty, in a few keystrokes.

Keeping it measurable. Language can also be inspiring or provocative. It’s the key to voice. The right words can move us, touch our very souls, cause us to highlight passages or scribble quotations we tape to walls or send to friends. Such things are hard to measure. That doesn’t make them unimportant—quite the reverse. I mention this because the CCSS must, by definition, focus on the measurable. We need to keep this in mind because it’s easy to conclude that what does not appear in the CCSS is unimportant. The truth is, what does not appear may be vital—but difficult (or even impossible) to measure. We cannot very well have a standard that says “Students will write quotable prose.” Many will, of course—at some point—especially if we consistently share the literature that inspires us. But quotable prose is something to wish for, encourage, cherish, and invite. It is not something we can demand. I often wish the CCSS were subtitled “Some Important Stuff We Feel Confident We Can Measure.”

Clarity. Let’s begin with a functional (and pretty measurable) goal: clarity. In the simplest terms, clarity means that the text makes sense—and specifically, that the text makes sense to the intended reader. For example, a science writer would likely describe photosynthesis one way to a consortium of botanists and another way to a class of fourth graders. In other words, while clarity is certainly about word choice, it’s also about audience.

Following is an excerpt from an owner’s manual on boilers purchased to heat homes. Keep in mind that the audience is the lay user, not a technician or engineer:

To change the “normal room temperature”: Factory setting: 68 degrees F/20 degrees C from 06:00 to 22:00 hrs. The “normal room temperature” can be set between 37 and 99 degrees F/3 and 37 degrees C. Press 1, or 2, or 3 to select the desired heating circuit. Turn the selector knob; the temperature value appears in the display window. If this is not done, the following instruction appears in display: Select button 1-2 or button 1-3.

Will any of this be on the test? Seriously, I think they’re trying to tell me that the temperature is set at the factory for 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius. This temperature will hold from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. I can change it if I want to, however, re-setting it for anything from 37 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my personal need for warmth. I don’t know what the “desired heating circuit” is because this is not explained—but hopefully, it will become more evident after I push button 1, 2, or 3.

Here’s the deal, though: I have to read this passage slowly and more than once to squeeze even this much meaning out of it. That shouldn’t be. This is not written by an incompetent writer; it’s simply written by someone used to communicating with other technicians. This is important because a large number of our students will make a living that involves writing. They may not be writing poems or novels, but many will be writing reports, letters, PR documents, press releases, or technical manuals, just like this one. And those who can communicate clearly will be in high demand.

As the preceding example shows, clarity involves choosing the right words (sometimes non-technical words) and putting them together in a logical order that speaks to a targeted audience. So—right words, logical order, audience awareness. Is that enough? Not quite. There’s also much to be said for including all necessary information.

Clarity requires completeness. An entertaining little book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999, 57) contains some advice about what to do in a variety of situations—such as, if one is attacked by an alligator.

Point 1 says this: “If you are on land, try to get on the alligator’s back and put downward pressure on its neck.” Pardon? I know what the individual words mean—nothing technical here—but have to say I cannot picture myself (or any sane person) doing this. I need some context. Is this alligator at all large—say larger than a cat? Is anyone helping me? How does one mount an alligator—always on the left, as with a horse? In other words, I’m suggesting that clarity demands including all essential steps, not just the one where I turn into a stunt double.

Point 2 tells me to “Cover the alligator’s eyes.” Seriously? Not unless I can do it from 50 yards away. I can just see myself digging through my purse, saying, “Where the heck did I put that alligator bandana?” It seems to me that this writer, like the writer of the boiler manual, would benefit from a reality check titled “Know Your Audience.” To write clearly, we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place.

Cultivating Delight

Details, details. Notice the contrast in this “full picture” example from Diane Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, 14). Though the topic is almost equally bizarre, her cautionary advice makes perfect sense because she helps us understand the circumstances under which a frog might find itself in a human mouth:

Never hide a frog in your mouth. Never lick a toad. Never kiss a warty small green male, however princely. Disgust is an underrated strategy. Many toads exude a toxic slime that makes predators recoil. The poisons tend to be hallucinogens, which teenagers are often tempted to sample, so each year some die from toad-licking. Toads won’t give you warts, but they can kill you.

The difference between this and the tip on blindfolding alligators is that Ackerman gives us detail and background info. She answers our most pressing question, which is, Why on earth would someone lick a toad or frog? Because, dear reader, hallucinogens (though often lethal) are (for some, anyway) tempting as all get-out. The best example of good word choice here, though, is “underrated strategy.” Who knew disgust was a strategy, much less an underrated one? We humans haven’t figured out that disgust is nature’s way of tipping us off. Gives you renewed respect for your instincts: e.g., repulsive could mean dangerous.


Precision. Clarity is also about using the just right word for the moment. Author Janell Cannon is known for her vivid, rich language and refusal to write down to children. In the picture book Crickwing (2000), she describes the capture of the artsy cockroach named Crickwing by a colony of ants: “He had no chance for escape as thousands of leafcutters swarmed over him, dragged him back to the anthill, and marched him down its dark, winding corridors.”

Brilliant. Not ants, but leafcutters. Very precise. They didn’t crawl over him; they swarmed. They didn’t pull him back; they dragged him. They didn’t take him down into the tunnel; they marched him into those dark, winding corridors.

We not only see the scene, but feel it, as if we were the ones being swarmed over, dragged, and marched to our doom. With its forceful parallel rhythm, the episode is meant to be horrific, and it is. Had she written, “The ants pulled Crickwing into their tunnel,” no one would be getting the chills—not even Crickwing.

pocket babies

Making meaning clear for the reader. Informational writing or argument often call for subject-specific terminology. The CCSS require that students not only use words appropriately and with understanding, but help readers understand them, as well. What does that look like? Here’s a clear explanation of the term speciation from Sneed Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, 11):

The marsupials that invaded South America, Antarctica, and Australia began evolving into many different species. Scientists call this process adaptive radiation or speciation. South America, for instance, gave rise to large marsupials that resembled bears and saber-toothed tigers. At a site called Riversleigh in Australia, scientists have unearthed an amazing variety of fossil marsupials, including nine-foot-tall kangaroos, marsupial lions, and ancestors of today’s koalas.

Note that Collard provides a simple definition for speciation, but also includes an example. This kind of attention to verbal detail makes his writing extremely easy to understand.

Animals in Translation

The expanded example. In her fascinating book Animals in Translation (2006), animal scientist Temple Grandin takes explanation a step further. First, she describes the concept of task analysis (a way of teaching handicapped students and sometimes animals) in these simple words: “If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way” (13). That’s easy enough to follow, but what I love is her expansion of the discussion:

Doing a task analysis isn’t as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren’t really aware of the very small separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt . . . If you’ve ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don’t really know how to do it, either—not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.

With this example, Grandin makes clear that word choice isn’t really about individual words (or synonyms) so much as it’s about concepts. (That’s why simply handing out vocabulary lists has only limited value.) Without the buttoning example, I would have only the most abstract and hard-to-recall sense of what task analysis is about. Now it’s a term I’ll remember forever—even though I don’t use it in my daily life. If you think about it, creating that kind of understanding is quite an achievement for a writer.

Figurative language. I want to pull one more example from Grandin to illustrate excellent use of metaphor. In this passage (214) on how the brain works, Grandin explains that simple, visceral fear happens in the amygdala—and very quickly. Analysis happens in the cortex, and takes longer. Only a few milliseconds longer, mind you—but in life or death circumstances, milliseconds count:

You’re walking down a path, you see something long, then, and dark in the path, and your amygdala screams, “It’s a snake!” Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, “It’s definitely a snake!” or, “It’s just a stick.” That doesn’t sound like very much time, but it makes all the difference in the world to whether you get bitten by that snake or not, assuming it is a snake and not a stick. The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.

The “rough draft of reality” is the perfect metaphor for helping me understand the nature of fast fear.

The CCSS require students to understand—and occasionally use—figures of speech. Why does this matter? Because metaphors, similes, or analogies take the unfamiliar and make it familiar by linking it to what readers already know. This strategy, though powerful, does not necessarily come naturally to students. That’s because they’re normally writing to us, their teachers, and believe we already know more about the subject (no matter what it is) than they do. This isn’t always true, naturally, but they write as if it were—as if they were teaching baking to Martha Stewart and dropping a few specifics could hardly matter less. This is a limiting perspective from which to write because it lets the writer off the hook when it comes to details or explanations. The writer-as-teacher, by contrast, has a distinct edge. When students write as if they were experts with something important and fascinating to share, as if every detail would make a difference to our understanding, their writing improves markedly.

The Winter Room

Descriptive/sensory language. Descriptive or sensory language enhances both setting and character development in narrative writing (For much more on this, see the section on Detail in the previous post.)

I cannot imagine a better introduction to sensory language than the Preface to Gary Paulsen’s The Winter Room. It only runs a couple of pages, but within this short space, Gary transports us to the farm of his childhood, alive with the sensory details that linger in his memory—notably sounds and smells. Because of copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the whole piece here, much as I would love to. But look it up. You’ll be so glad you did. When you talk with your students about sensory detail or descriptive language, consider using this piece (1989, 1-3) to kick off your discussion. Don’t be surprised if many students want to write (almost immediately) about places memorable for them. (It’s stunning what memories are unleashed just by the smells of popcorn, pine, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate.) Here’s just a fragment from Paulsen’s Preface:

If books could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells . . . . It would have the smells of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn . . . This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop . . .

Books, Paulsen tells us, cannot by themselves have sounds, smells, and all the rest—because they need readers. “The book needs you” (3). Yes, books do need readers. Yes, it is a dance. But the words are the music.

The Animal Dialogues

Descriptive detail in informational writing. Does descriptive detail have a place in informational writing? Absolutely. Think how dull informational writing would be, what an absolute nightmare it would be to pay attention, if it were all charts, graphs, and statistics. Human readers need stories, examples, and images to hold onto. Otherwise, we can’t put all that information in its place—and what is more, we aren’t very compelled to do so. The abstract is only interesting when we have specific cases to which we can apply what we learn.

In The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs teaches us about the brains of mosquitoes (2007, 283), first laying the groundwork with some factual information:

Of any creature this size, the mosquito has the most complex mechanical wiring known. Fifteen thousand sensory neurons reside in the antennae region alone. The sensory organs of the head are arranged like clockwork. Electron-microscope examination reveals interconnected rods and chambers, pleated dishes and prongs and plates . . . These take the mechanical and chemical environment and translate it into a tactical array of electrical impulses to the mosquito’s brain, a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.

If you’re anything like me as a reader, your imagination clings to that final explicit detail—“a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.” The rest I sum up this way in my head: mosquito brain = “complex” and “structurally organized” and “highly sensitive.” I probably won’t recall the part about the fifteen thousand sensory neurons, even though it impressed me at the time. But I’ll always recall this next paragraph, the descriptive part:

If a mosquito is released in still air, it will come directly to you even if you are standing one hundred feet away. Through the air, the mosquito senses the carbon dioxide of your breath, lactic acid from your skin, traces of acids emitted by skin bacteria, and the humidity and heat of your body. If there is a slight breeze, a mosquito may be able to locate you across the length of a football field . . . . Some people stink more than others. The degree of the stink, subtleties we may never comprehend with our noses, is like a field of wildflowers to a mosquito. (283, 287)

You feel them coming for you, don’t you? Those sensory neurons are important—but in the end, it’s the futility of escape I cannot stop thinking about. I’m trying not to sweat. And by the way, how long does it take to run the length of a football field?


TEACHING Word Choice

Here are seven things you can do to teach word choice.

  1. Read. It’s still the best strategy. Students need to read on their own—of course. But they need to be read to as well, even older students. You don’t have to read a 300-page book. Pick an excerpt, about the length of the ones I’ve chosen here. Quality and variety matter far more than length. Read aloud as often as you can—more than once a day, if possible. Read what you love so the passion comes through. The standards don’t call for students to love language, but without this, the rest doesn’t really matter.
  2. Encourage students to hunt up favorite passages. They can read them aloud to partners or in small groups or to the whole class. Or post quotations for everyone to read.
  3. Don’t shy away from picture books. Secondary teachers often think their students have outgrown picture books. This is interesting to me since picture books have an enormous adult audience. I buy them for friends all the time and so far no one has said, “Thanks, but I think I’m too old for this.” Maybe that’s because picture books are not what they used to be in the good old days of Dick, Jane, Spot, and Puff. On the contrary, picture book writing is arguably the most demanding genre. And in addition, many picture books today are written specifically with an adult audience in mind. The advantages of using picture books instructionally are many, but here are just two: (1) They’re short enough to share within a single class period, and (2) They hold students’ attention. I have found this to be true even with middle and high school students.
  4. Fill in the blanks. Take any passage you feel is especially well written, omit a few words or substitute something more banal, and ask students to fill in the blanks with their own versions. Here’s a short passage from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (2000, 272), detailing the famous match race between the small but gutsy thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the legendary War Admiral. It’s a tight race at this point, and Hillenbrand wants to use verbs that will capture the intensity. What would you put in the six blanks I’ve filled with something flat and ordinary? You don’t have to match Hillenbrand. Just make it sing! (I’ll give you the original at the end of this section.)

The horses WENT out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They MOVED shoulders and hips, heads GOING up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and MOVING in unison. The poles WENT by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and FELL behind.

  1. Focus on verbs. The CCSS do not make a big deal of verbs—but in my view, this is a serious oversight. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be captivatingly powerful if they’re uncommon and selected with surgical care—if we’re finicky, as Zinsser puts it. But for sheer, raw energy, nothing beats the verb, as Diane Ackerman illustrates here: “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern . . . The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” (A History of the Senses, 1990, xvii). I love picturing my senses tearing reality apart and feeding shards of info to my brain. That makes me feel alive—much more so than “making sense” of the world.
  2. Explore nuance. The thesaurus can be your friend or arch enemy. The secret lies in knowing precisely what you want to say. Words like smart, intelligent, mindful, savvy, clever, and cunning are related, but not interchangeable. Discuss groups of words like these, asking students to distinguish among them by using synonyms, explanations, and examples.
  3. Model. Create a business letter, short informational passage, or description as students look on. Pause one, two, or three times to ask for help finding the right word to express an idea. Talk about how words affect tone (voice) as well as meaning. If you’re agreeing to a job interview, for example, what’s the difference between saying “I’m dying to meet you!” and “I look forward to our meeting”?

What did she really write? Here’s Hillenbrand’s original passage. I’ve underlined the missing words so you can spot them easily. Notice she does not repeat—and she does not use first-word-that-came-to-me verbs like went or moved. As you compare what you (or your students) wrote, please remember that matching is not important. What counts is coming up with words that are striking, meaningful, original, and fitting (272):

The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Right after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll present Part 3 of our look at the Core of the Common Core. In December, I’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative; and in early January, we’ll look at Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills—and make important links to the six traits. You won’t want to miss either one. Meantime, Jeff and I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings.

Thank you for coming. Please come often, and recommend our site to friends. And . . . to book your own personalized 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.


For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding post, please check out the following resources:

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


Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure to order 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 www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

10 Essential Writing Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word Choice–BIG in the Common Core

Word choice gets major emphasis in the CCSS–not only in the writing standards, but also in those for language. The Standards stress clarity above all else, and this makes perfect sense. If we can’t make ourselves understood, what’s the point of writing at all? But here’s the catch: How on earth do we teach people to write clearly?

3 Steps to Better Word Choice

Traditionally, clarity has been taught through marginal comments, not all of them kind. Perhaps you recall receiving some of these sprinkled on the margins of your own writing: Awkward! Unclear! Give an example! Say what you mean! A colleague remembered one of her college professors writing this: Just spit it out! Well, at least he was clear.

While no one would cite labeling, shouting, and name calling as the top three instructional techniques, sometimes it IS difficult to know how to help students who cannot seem to express their thoughts clearly. We want to suggest a couple of things that can help:

1. Whenever possible (and it isn’t ALWAYS possible, we realize) encourage students to choose their own topics. This increases personal investment, upping the odds that the writer will either (a) know something about the topic already, or (b) like the idea of researching it. A lot of vague writing results from the writer simply not knowing much about the subject, and so relying on generalities and repetition to fill the page.

2. Encourage students to talk to each other (in pairs or small groups of three) about their topics prior to writing. (Sidebar: We often ask students to share work after they write, but sharing prior to writing can be even more valuable.) Students can take about five minutes each to introduce their topic to this small audience, summarize what they find interesting, and ask listeners what they’d like to know. This kind of oral rehearsal gets the writing engines humming, and clears away many linguistic cobwebs before they can ever drip onto paper. It is time well spent.

3. Have students practice revising other people’s vague writing. Where will you find examples of this? Oh–everywhere. Look around: newspapers, business PR documents and announcements, advertisements, boiler plate letters and memos from government offices or other agencies, textbooks, editorials, reviews–a very large percentage of the writing all around us could use revision. Start today making a collection, and within a month, you’ll have numerous ready-to-go lessons that will engage students because they represent real writing. If nothing else, students will learn this important lesson: Just because it’s published, that’s no sign it’s well-written.

Preparation for Testing

Much of the upcoming testing based on the CCSS will be performance-based, not multiple choice. What does that mean? In the case of writing, it means students may be asked to write original pieces or revise others. They may be asked to come up with a lead or ending for an existing piece–or suggest ways of making unclear writing comprehensible. So–why not begin now?

One Example

Here’s a real piece of writing that I received a few years ago from a district (that will remain anonymous) asking for volunteers to help sort out budget difficulties and make recommendations to the local School Board. I was quite stunned to receive this note, finding both the tone and the content a little surprising, but saved it to use as a word choice lesson–and after waiting a couple of years (I didn’t want to appear to be pointing fingers), I took it to a high school class so they could try revising it. In the next post, I’ll share the results of that lesson. But meanwhile, here’s the memo:

It may be in your objective interests to know that we are in the process of doing a budgetary analysis (through a procedure known as conjoint analysis) to determine how funds may best be spent to meet the impending needs of teachers, students, and others within the community. Conjoint analysis is best understood as a critical technique employed by marketing firms to develop products whose salient characteristics comply with a company’s primary market demands. A clear example is the recent revival of the Volkswagen. Key to this process is assembly of a voluntary committee to facilitate decision making. Only 4 hours of your time are required! Please give consideration to this request. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated!

If you decide to use this with students, these are my suggestions:

1. Print the copy out, double spaced.

2. Read the memo aloud first, and ask your class for reactions.

3. Try, as a class, to determine the primary message: What is the writer trying to say?

4. Also identify the audience. Who will receive this? Are the message and tone appropriate for that audience?

5. Pass out the copies of the memo, and encourage students to read it more than once. They should begin thinking of ways to revise it, and mark it up any way they wish.

6. Have students work in teams of two to create an actual revision. There are NO RULES other than to retain the central message. They may delete anything at all, add sentences, revise any wording, etc.

7. When they finish, have them read their revisions aloud to themselves first–and make any finishing touches. Then, ask for volunteers to share their revisions aloud with the class as a whole, and discuss results.

Note: This is not an easy task. It calls for thinking, and that will be at the heart of CCSS assessment. Students will be required to think, plan, and problem solve. This particular activity is suitable for high school students and many middle schoolers–it would be a challenge for most elementary level writers, but advanced elementary writers could give it a go. If you decide this particular memo is too hard for your students to tackle, find an example more suited to their reading level and follow the same steps. Keep the sample fairly short. The one I have shared here is about the maximum length I would ever use. A sample of two or three sentences in length might be appropriate for young writers. 

Advantage to This Type of Practice

Students do most of their revision and editing practice on work they have written themselves. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near enough practice to promote proficiency because students simply do not write enough. If they were writing several pages a day, every single day, that amount of practice would come closer to meeting what’s needed for real improvement. But that isn’t realistic in most classrooms, and even if it were, there would still be a problem: As writers (and readers), we simply do not see our own text the way we see that of others.

This isn’t a matter of pride–imagining we’re better writers than we really are. No, there’s a very simple explanation. The intended meaning of everything we write lives in our heads, even if it stubbornly resists showing up on the page. And so, we often wind up reading what we meant to say, rather than what we said. To make matters even more complicated, as we reread our own writing, we always know what’s coming–we wrote it, after all. So there’s little motivation to read our own work attentively, hanging on every word, as the saying goes. We skim and skip along, often leapfrogging over whole passages. No wonder we often fail to notice missing words or punctuation, misspellings, repeated words or phrases, grammatical lapses, and whole departures from logic.

But–there is hope. By practicing on the work of others, students develop a much sharper eye–and ear–for catching problems or inconsistencies. Practicing revision is, in fact, such an effective technique that you almost cannot do too much of it. With routine practice in revision of others’ work, expect to see significant improvement in students’ ability to revise their own work.

A challenge . . . Even if you’re not teaching right now, try revising the previous memo yourself. That way, you can compare your revision to that of the high school students (which we’ll post shortly). It’s fun–and such comparisons teach us many embedded lessons about revising well.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, we’ll share a follow-up post containing a high school revision of the conjoint analysis memo. Expect to be surprised!! And in weeks to come, we’ll discuss Conventions and the Common Core, and post reviews of some new books that have captured our attention this year. Thanks for stopping by, and if you enjoy our posts, please share our blog address with friends. Remember, for the best writing workshops combining traits, standards, writing process and workshop, and literature, please call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.