Tag Archive: Common Core Standards for writing


Brief Introduction by Vicki

Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand, and while composing a post related to that marvelous adventure (to appear here soon!), I stumbled upon yet another opportunity–the chance to revisit Diddorol, the magical gaming kingdom developed by middle school teacher Larry Graykin, who is easily one of the most inventive teachers I’ve ever encountered. Writing instruction in Larry’s classroom has all the charm and allure of any video game, and in the four years since I interviewed him last, I learned that Diddorol has evolved. The rules for earning points in this gaming system may appear complex, but everything comes into focus if you keep in mind that Graykin’s goals are ingeniously simple: to motivate student writers–big time, to get them not only knowing but actually using the six traits, to maximize their opportunities to work collaboratively in teams, to expose students to as many forms of writing (e.g., fiction and nonfiction) within a short time as possible, and to ensure that every student has an opportunity some way, somehow, to show off his or her strengths–editing, voice, word choice, original thinking, or whatever. But enough from me. Let’s let Larry, who invented the kingdom, tell its story . . .

Kingdom of Diddorol Poster

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

In Larry’s Own Words

During the summer of 2012, as most people tuned in to watch the world’s best athletes compete in the Olympics, I was puzzling and planning.  The prior school year, I had piloted a game overlay about a fantasy Kingdom called Diddorol. You can learn about that here:

https://sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/gaming-meets-the-six-traits/

And in more detail, here in a recent article I wrote for In Perspective:

http://www.ohiorc.org/adlit/InPerspective/Issue/2015-03/Article/vignette2.aspx ].

The experience was amazing for both my students and me, but at the end of the year, I had a problem: As my class was multiage grades 7 & 8, I was going to have half of the same students coming back to me. I could not use the same game again…that’d be boring.

Well, I called it a problem above, but it really was an opportunity. Why not experiment and see what other games I might come up with? I decided to pilot three new overlays, one per trimester. That also meant that I could focus on one at a time.

And so, I set in on Trimester One’s overlay.  I started with a goal to have students read each other’s writing more often, and to view the pieces critically. I also wanted to try building more intrinsic reasons for students to complete their work, and that meant collaboration. It occurred to me that I could have the students work on teams. And this evolved into the Diddorol Olympics.

But how to transition within the greater game’s story arc?  In the storyline the prior year, King Law had resigned as ruler of Diddorol to become a private reading tutor. In his stead, Queen Justine was put in charge. After a year of stressful complications, it only made sense that a benevolent dictator would seek to provide a spell of respite to the denizens.

After this, I contemplated what the rules might be.  Thinking about what problems might occur, what imbalances might exist for different students of differing abilities, I created special [virtual] equipment and mechanisms. Out of these considerations, the game’s structure emerged:

Kingdom of Diddorol

Kingdom of Diddorol

The Core

I don’t mean Common Core. I mean what’s important in teaching writing: The Six Traits. As I did with the original game, I used the Six Traits as the foundation. It’s a natural, as it directly addresses the most important aspects of writing, and thus addresses all the most important standards–Common or otherwise. My school adopted the traits several years ago, so my 7th and 8th graders have had at least a few years of experience with them, but we still take a few days at the beginning of the year to review them and discuss how they’re used. I like to have kids assess sample pieces and see how close they come to my assessments.

The Basics

In each class (I have five, of about 20-25 students each), there would be two teams. Each week, I would announce an open topic (e.g., love, pain, ambition), and each student would be expected to write a piece that somehow tied into that topic. The writings would be assessed on two of the Six Traits, which would be announced with the topic. At the end of the week, team members would share their writing with one another, and choose a paper from all that were written to send to a weekly competition. A presenter would be chosen by the team, who would then read the chosen piece, and I would orally assess each piece, referring to the rubrics posted around the room.

Topic Choice + Two Traits

Topic Choice + Two Traits

The Complications

When you think about it, most game rules are complications. They turn what might be a chore in other circumstances into something fun. The basic are fine, but how to spice it up?

First, the two teams could have slightly different objectives…. I thought about how I might achieve this fairly, and decided on a simple twist: Fiction vs. Non-fiction. For the first half of the trimester, one team would write about the imagined while the other focused on what’s real. At half-time, they’d swap sides.  Doing this would accomplish a couple other goals I thought worthy: Help the students to see how the Six Traits apply to either category of writing, and improve the odds of students writing non-fiction more often.

Next, I wanted to find strategies to encourage participation. My game overlays use an accumulated experience point (XP) system for assessment:

0 XP   = start point

225     = a passing grade (D-)

300     = D

600     = C

900     = B

1400    = A

1800 XP is required to get an A+.

But for this game I needed a secondary counter for team success. Olympics points (OP) were created. I would offer XP based on the team’s success to those students who did the expected work, and the total XP (experience points) earned would be based on OP (Olympics points).

Here’s how it would work:

  •  The team gets 1 OP for each paper turned in. (Since teams were about 12 students in size, this would be about 12 OP.)
  • Students in my class sit at tables. (There are six, one table for each of the traits.) I call these groupings “guilds”; there would be 3 guilds per team. The team would get 5 bonus OP for each of its guilds that had a 100% turn in rate.
  • Papers that were shared would earn OP based on the trait score. I chose a multiplier of 2 to increase the total OP possible. If one week the traits being assessed were Ideas and Organization, and a paper earned 6s on both rubrics, then that would score 24 OP.

Student Brainstorming

  • To encourage students to choose different authors’ papers each week, instead of relying on one adept student, a bonus of 3 OC would be added if the paper a team selected was by someone who never had a paper selected before. (Varying which traits would be assessed also helped to allow students with different strengths to have a chance to shine.)
  • I knew I’d want to throw in some “game stuff” that could influence the team’s total OP. What do athletes make use of to enhance their scores? I created tickets (symbolizing crowds to cheer the athletes on), virtual foods, training and team equipment, trainers, etc. Some of these elements gave a specific number of OP, some deducted OP from the opposing team, and some added increases by a set percentage. Some of these could be purchased using a form of Kingdom currency, “Explorer Credits,” and others would be given as rewards for participation in class, success in accumulating XP, etc.

Here is the scoring form I used for each competition:

Score Form

Day One might forgo the minilesson or activity. Instead, I’d use that time to introduce the week’s writing topic, as well as reveal which two traits would be assessed. Usually the Kingdom News would include a summary of the prior week’s events, and discuss the teams’ overall standings in the trimester-long competition:

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Day Four was taken up with the competition. At my school, we have a rotating block schedule, and I see each of my five classes four times over the course of an ordinary week. Every day but Day Four would generally include the usual ELA class elements: vocabulary work, a minilesson and/or assessment, and perhaps a brief activity before a “work session” which usually was about 20 minutes.

Another Topic Choice

Another Topic Choice

The Schedule

In short, what all these rules boil down to: If students do their writing on a given week, they get XP. If their tablemates all do their writing, they get more—an incentive to keep each other on task. If their entire team does all their writing, they get more still. And the better the quality of the piece they choose to share, the more XP they each get.

You’ll note that I gave a nominal amount of XP to the student who read the paper aloud, and that the final XP released would be the OP earned plus a bonus: The winning team gets OP + 15 XP, and the second place team gets OP + 5. In this way, points could be earned not only by doing well, but also through participation–for example, reading aloud.

I would “check-in” contestants’ papers, using a special hole-punch to mark them as received, and noting each guilds’ level of completion. I’d call for stadium tickets.

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Each guild would read the papers their members wrote and choose what they thought was the strongest contender, and then teammates would convene to choose the best of the three finalists. Each team would have a turn, in which the student-selected “best” would be read, and I would assess each orally (and make note of the scores onto the sheet) after hearing each.

This process just about always filled the block. If it ran short, I might fill in with a minilesson or announce the next week’s topic & traits early, and move the kids into a work session.

As detailed as all this is, I have glossed over certain elements of the game, but this gives you a sense of how the Olympics work. All in all, the design took perhaps 16 hours, spread out over a few days.

Variations

The Olympics returned in the first trimester of this school year with only minor changes. The biggest change was in the “fiction vs. non-fiction” element. I wondered if the game would work without any such restriction, and so I removed it to find out. As I guessed, most of the students chose to write fiction for the competitions. I compensated for the non-fiction Olympic deficiency by making most of the optional “quests”—specific assignments that students can take on to earn extra XP—non-fictional. This worked well for the higher achievers, but for the students who struggle getting work done, it reduced their non-fiction output. I would restore the game to the original rule next time.The second trimester of this school year, I tried a variation I called the Triathlon. It required the teams to

  1. choose a multigenre topic,
  2. research it,
  3. write about that topic in three different ways—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—over six weeks (thus “Triathlon”), and then
  4. create a website that shared the best of their writings.

This was specifically done in an effort to target as many of the new Common Core standards as possible. The results were mixed; although the final products were in most cases impressive. To see samples of student work, go to the following example site: http://grimsvotnteam.weebly.com/

More Topic Choices

More Topic Choices

Some Conclusions

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: You

If you do try something, don’t be afraid to tell the students straight out that you are piloting something new, and ask them for advice. Some of the best tweaks to my games’ rules have come from students—after all, many of them ARE gamers, and this is their turf!

And don’t think you need a thorough understanding of game theory to create a more complex game. Think of the games that you’ve played, and borrow ideas and rules from them. I am not much of a gamer, myself, but my passing acquaintance with classic text-based computer games like Zork and the online Kingdom of Loathing [link: www.kingdomofloathing.com] have given me scores of ideas.

Is gamifying right for you? If your gut reaction is intrigue, then it may be. You don’t have to do anything as complex as I. Start small. You could create a simple game-based unit that runs for a week or two. It doesn’t have to be deeply rooted in a mythological storyline, and it doesn’t have to make use of metaphor and symbolism. After all–tic tac toe is a game, and its rules are simple, it has no deeper meaning, and there’s certainly no plot. Try doing a unit with cumulative points instead of averaged points. Try having a list of possible assignments instead of a single one that everyone must do.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Me

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

 

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

 

Larry Graykin, M.Ed., teaches English language arts at Barrington Middle School in Barrington, New Hampshire. He maintains several ed-related sites, including commoncorecriticisms.wikispaces.com (a compilation of links to articles and videos critical of deleterious educational reforms) and attitudematters.wikispaces.com (about the importance of kindness). You can find him on Twitter at @L_Graykin. Recently, Barry Lane suggested he write a book about Diddorol and classroom game overlays; it is hard to say no to one’s friend, mentor, and guru…. Visitors are always welcome in Diddorol! To arrange a visit, email: LGraykin@sau74.org

Or visit virtually, online at www.diddorol.com.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Note: Videos showing the magic of Diddorol are available, and we look forward to providing a link, pending permission from the participating students.

Next time on Gurus, I’ll be writing about my adventures down under–specifically, how writers choose writing worthy moments, especially when they have many to choose from. Meantime, thank you, as always for stopping by. Please come often and bring friends. We appreciate your company!

Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

 

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A review by Jeff Hicks

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

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades K through 16

Features: Glossary.

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

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

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

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

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

Sixtraitgurus Posts:

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

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

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

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

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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“No More Hamburgers”—Something to Ponder…

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

*An Example

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

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

Robert Frost

“Only a Magician”—Resolving an Instructional Conflict

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

*An Example–

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

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“Voice”—The Reason to Keep Reading

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

* Examples–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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“Two Absurdly Simple Rules”

Author Newkirk offers this boiled down advice—

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

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

“Seven Textbook Sins”

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

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

* An Example–

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

www.heinemann.com/authors/902.aspx

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

 

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Last Stop on Market Street. 2015. Written by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Unpaginated.

Genre: Picture book

Ages: Grades K-2 (and up)

 

Summary

CJ and his grandma have a routine they follow each Sunday after church—they ride the city bus all the way to the last stop on Market Street. On this particular Sunday, CJ’s not too thrilled about making the journey, and he doesn’t keep his lack of enthusiasm to himself. His unhappiness comes out in a string of questions for his grandma—Why do we have to wait for the bus in the rain? Why don’t we have a car? Why do we have to go to the same place every Sunday? Why don’t any of my friends have to go? Of course, there are many more questions, and none of them faze grandma or her sunny disposition in the least. She’s ready and knows just how to answer to help work CJ out of his funk. By the time they reach “the last stop on Market Street,” and walk to the shelter where they volunteer, CJ is looking at his world, urban warts and all, through a different lens and is more than glad that he made the trip.

In the Classroom

  1. Reading. As we always suggest, it’s best to read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it with students. I also like to read a book like this out loud, so I can hear how it sounds as I voice each character. It’s good to remind myself that I’m modeling expressive reading for my students. When a book is as well written as this one, it’s easy to find and stay in step with the natural rhythm of the words. I’ll mention it again later, but the active verbs energizing each sentence help make it even easier to read. If verbs are the engine of every sentence, then Matt de la Peña is a first-class writing mechanic. His verb choice has each sentence running smoothly, from the opener to the wrap-up.

You’ll want to use a document camera to help students zoom in on Christian Robinson’s vibrant illustrations—a blend of paper cutouts and paint—to help young readers see and feel each part of CJ’s journey. I particularly like the way he makes each passenger on the bus an individual character—and not just background—with the inclusion of one or two distinct details.

  1. Background. The world of CJ and his Nana is urban—neighborhoods with trees, brownstone houses/apartments, sidewalk vendors, city-buses, city-traffic, graffiti tags, and abandoned buildings. Their bus trip clearly takes them from their familiar residential neighborhood surrounding their church through the city to a part of town where CJ feels the need to hold Nana’s hand. Again, she’s not fazed at all by the change in scenery. She’s smiling all the way to their destination—a soup kitchen where she and CJ help serve the needy patrons. If your students live in a more suburban, small town, or rural environment, much of the bus ride from church to the end of Market Street will need to be discussed/previewed and compared to where they live. Sharing suggestion: Using a document camera/projected images from your computer, share and discuss some images of city life—busy streets, tall buildings, public transportation—buses, light rail, etc., to help students connect to CJ’s world.Discuss with students how they get to school and around town. Many of your students may ride buses to school, but they may not have experienced public transportation like CJ and Nana. You may also want/need to familiarize students with some information about soup kitchens/shelters that provide meals and services to people in need. Some of your students may have participated in clothing/food drives or helped to feed the hungry. This may be a sensitive/personal topic for some of your students whose families are in need. You know your students best.

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  1. Organization/Word Choice.It’s easy to overlook the endpapers of books. As a reader, the excitement of getting into the story and illustrations can make it easy to flip right past the inside covering, flip over the title page, and jump right into the reason you grabbed the book in the first place. While it’s true that many books may use a plain colored paper, this book has used white images (on a golden yellow background) of 12 items clipped from the book’s illustrations, repeated like a wallpaper pattern. Take a picture (or photocopy) of the end paper. Depending on your class size, you may only need one or two copies. Cut out the images and distribute one—make sure that there will be more than one student holding the same image. Ask each student, one at a time, to hold up and name/describe the object in their image—e.g., umbrella, bird flying, guitar, etc.—to make sure they know what they’re holding. As you read the story, ask students to look closely to find their image as you show each page of illustrations. When they see their image, hold it up and, when invited, bring it up to the front white board or chart paper. On one section of the board/chart paper, attach one of the images. With the students’ help, name it and write its name underneath. This group of labeled images will become a collection of words for students to use (like a word wall) in their own writing. Attach the other copy of the same image to the board/chart paper to create an organizational timeline, sequencing each image from beginning to end. When you have used all the images, see if any students think they tell the story using the timeline as a reminder.

You could also use the process of naming the images as a way to make predictions in advance of readingWhat is the setting? Ideas about characters? How are the images connected? What do you think will happen?

  1. Central Topic/Theme/Message.What is the central message of the book? Why do you think author Matt de la Peña felt it was important to tell CJ and his grandma’s story? (Be sure to point out that both the author and illustrator mention grandmothers on the dedication page. Don’t forget to share the author and illustrator’s bios. Christian Robinson mentions that he “grew up riding the bus with his nana—just like CJ.”)
  2. Details. Use the image timeline your students created to emphasize that they represent key details in the story—if the author had omitted any of them the purpose, direction, and outcome of the story is affected. Leaving out some of them—the bus, guitar, dog, etc., makes it impossible to tell the story. Ask your students to retell the story without the bus ride. Talk about all the big and little changes to the story.Character details—I mentioned earlier that the illustrator, Christian Robinson, is able to create clear individuals—CJ, Nana, bus passengers, people at the shelter—by including one or two distinctive details for each character. Show your students the illustrations of the bus passengers (or the shelter patrons). Have them name each passenger’s distinguishing details—clothing items/colors, hair, accessories, etc., while you record their ideas. I think they might even have fun giving each person a name. You could even take it one step beyond and have them create back-stories for them or ideas about each passenger’s plan for the day/destination.
  1. Character details—I mentioned earlier that the illustrator, Christian Robinson, is able to create clear individuals—CJ, Nana, bus passengers, people at the shelter—by including one or two distinctive details for each character. Show your students the illustrations of the bus passengers (or the shelter patrons). Have them name each passenger’s distinguishing details—clothing items/colors, hair, accessories, etc., while you record their ideas. I think they might even have fun giving each person a name. You could even take it one step beyond and have them create back-stories for them or ideas about each passenger’s plan for the day/destination.
  1. Reading for meaning.At one point in the book, the narrator says, “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain…” What does he mean by this? What if he had said that the air smelled like danger? the air smelled like Monday? the air smelled like Saturday morning? (Note:Young students may struggle a bit with this, but many will enjoy the challenge of a discussion with philosophical depth. They may surprise you—as I’m sure you’re surprised every day—with their understanding.) This discussion also opens the door to the use, meaning, and purpose of similes in writing and speaking. This kind of comparison, I believe comes naturally to students, especially in conversation. I think it’s important to help students recognize figurative language, name it, look and listen for examples during reading and speaking, and then use it with purpose in their own writing.
  1. Word choice–Verbs. Earlier, I suggested that verbs are the engine of every sentence. Matt de la Peña expresses direct, visible action with every verb choice. As CJ left church in the book’s first sentence, he “…pushed through the church doors, skipped down the steps.” On the second page, the rain “…freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.” Strong choices like these need to highlighted for student writers and readers. I like to have young students physically act out verbs—to really feel the action or draw pictures of the verbs acting on the objects. What if CJ “went through the church doors,” or the rain “got on CJ’s shirt.”? What happens when students try to act out or draw these actions? What happens to readers’ involvement in the story when verbs are flat and passive? What happens to the writer’s big idea?
  1. Writing opportunities.Ideas for writing jumped out at me from every page of this book. I’m going to list several suggestions but leave it up to you to shape them to the interests and needs of your students. Depending on the ages of your students, these suggestions could be done as individual or group writing.
  • CJ and his Nana have their Sunday routine. Discuss the concept of routine with your students. What routines do they follow (besides going to school)? What is their Saturday/Sunday/weekend routine?
  • What experience do your students have with public transportation—buses, subway, light rail, etc.? Describe a person you have seen while riding public transportation. Does your city have public transportation? Research the different modes of transportation a city/town might have. In your opinion, are CJ and his Nana smart to not own a car?
  • Compare (through experience or research) the differences in city/urban living with life in a smaller town or rural area. After researching this topic, write an opinion piece arguing for/against city versus country/small town living.
  • Research the training of service/guide dogs. Which breeds of dogs are easiest to train for these purposes? What kinds of services are these dogs trained to perform?
  • Write about an experience with a grandparent or older relative/close friend. What can you learn from senior citizens?
  • Write about an experience when you volunteered to help a friend, family member, or neighbor. Have you ever helped out, like CJ, at a church or shelter?
  • Poetry—Read Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem called “Rain.”

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

Write a poem or personal experience story about being out in the rain. What’s fun about             the rain?  What’s not so fun about rain?

  • Closing his eyes and listening to the man play his guitar helps CJ change his mood. What do you do to put yourself in a brighter mood?
  • What kind of music do you listen to? Try to describe/explain why you like listening or playing music. How do different kinds of music make you feel? If possible, collaborate with your music teacher for some help with this. Listening and moving to different types of music is a natural way to help conceptualize voice (human presence, sense of the individual in writing) for younger students.
  • CJ’s Nana tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt…you’re a better witness to what’s beautiful.” What do you think she is trying to tell him? What do you think is “beautiful” in your life?
  1. Conventions–dialogue. In number 6 above, I suggested having students name and create back-stories for the bus passengers or shelter patrons. Asking students to create dialogue between these newly-brought-to-life characters, is a great way to introduce and practice the conventions writers use when their characters converse. Rather than just tell your students about using quotation marks and commas, I suggest using your document camera to zoom in on a few examples of dialogue from the book. What do your students notice when CJ or his Nana are talking? What happens to your voice when you read the parts inside the quotations? What might happen to readers if writers forget to give them the appropriate clues/cues? 
  1. More titles. Here are a few (and just a few) more titles of books you and your students might want to explore, especially if you and your students do not live in an urban area. (You probable have several titles you could add to these examples.)

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One Monday Morning. 1967. Written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

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Something Beautiful. 1998. Written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. New York: Doubleday.

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The Snowy Day. 1962. Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. New York: Penguin. Winner of the Caldecott Medal-1963.

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The Gardener. 1997. Written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

 

For more on the picture books and YA novels from author, Matt de la Peña, visit:

www.mattdelapena.com

For more about the wonderful art of illustrator, Christian Robinson, visit:

www.theartoffun.com

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next up–some reflections on and reactions to Thomas Newkirk’s extremely thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Every page makes me think! Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Fire Birds

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests by Sneed B. Collard III. 2015. Bucking Horse Books.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book.

Ages: For readers 8 to 14.

Review by Vicki Spandel

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Summary

Most of us have been taught that wildfires are a bad thing—and that’s true when they threaten homes or lives. In the wilderness, however, wildfires can be an essential part of the natural life cycle. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way.

In this book, readers discover that natural wildfires are anything but a contemporary phenomenon; they have been with us throughout time. And while they can be intensely frightening and destructive, the news is not all bad. Wildfires actually generate life, especially when allowed to follow their natural course. Intervention by humans can create a situation where fire fuels grow and expand so profusely that fire cannot be stopped or contained. Good intentions do not always lead us down the best path.

This book does not endorse allowing any fire to go unchecked if it threatens homes or human lives. But it does help us recognize the benefits that natural occurring fires bring—not only habitat for many types of wild birds, but also fertile soil for regeneration of countless trees and shrubs that create natural, multi-species forests. Naturally occurring fires also clear the forest of underbrush which, if allowed to grow unchecked, presents an unthinkable danger to plants, animals, and any humans happening to reside nearby. It is time, as the author tells us, to update Smokey Bear’s message.

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Inside Your Classroom

1. Background. Is wildfire common in your area? Perhaps some of your students (or you) have witnessed a wildfire, watched media coverage, or even been evacuated. Take time to discuss the frequency and severity of fires in your area, particularly in recent years, inviting students to share experiences of their own. How do your students feel about wildfires prior to experiencing this book? (Note: This can be a sensitive topic for students who have suffered loss as a result of fire, so we recognize your need to pursue this discussion with awareness and caution.)

2. The title: Inference and prediction. A title like Fire Birds could well apply to a sci fi adventure! This is a science book, of course. So where did this title probably come from? What hints does it provide about the likely theme or central message of the book?

3. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing it with students. At just under 50 pages, it is a quick read for an adult, and the combination of fascinating information, enticing illustrations, and strong sense of drama make it an inviting text for young readers who favor nonfiction or have an interest in nature. This book is highly recommended for use with a study group. If you decide to share it with the whole class, a document projector is all but essential since the illustrations are an integral element of the book’s message.

4. Introduction. As the Common Core standards for writing remind us, a good introduction sets the stage for what follows. Share the introduction titled “Inferno!” aloud with students, using a document projector to share the accompanying illustration of a wildfire as you do so. Ask students to listen for words or phrases that catch their attention (notably verbs), and make a class list. You may wish to read the passage more than once to facilitate this. What impression is the author creating with this passage? Is it effective in setting the stage for the discussion to come? Does it capture our attention? How? In particular, notice the final line, a three-word question. Why is this question particularly important? Ask how many of your students have used a question as part of their writing strategy in crafting an introduction.

5. Organizational structure. Check out the Table of Contents. It’s very colorful! Do your students like the format? Notice that although this is not a long book (about 50 heavily illustrated pages, including appended material), it’s broken into an introduction plus five chapters. Does breaking a text up in this way help readers? How? Notice that the chapters are not only numbered, but also have titles. See if your students can use these titles to orally trace the writer’s thinking, point to point, even prior to reading the book. Are their expectations borne out as they read the text?

6. Main idea. What is this author’s main idea or message? Pose this question after sharing Chapter 1—and ask students to summarize the main idea in their own words. Then, revisit the question after getting deeper into the book. Students may not change their minds, but their ability to elaborate on the main idea will likely grow. You might also ask them to listen for a sentence or paragraph they feel sums up the author’s primary message. (Note: Check out the final paragraph on page 30 for one good possibility. Also notice the quotation attributed to Dick Hutto on page 8.)

7. Details. Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more. See how many of these various forms your writers can identify in Fire Birds. Ask how many they use in their own writing. You may want to point out that varied detail enriches writing. No one wants to read text that is all facts, for example. The mind craves variety, and learns more easily when given multiple paths to information. What kinds of details do your students respond to as readers?

8. Format. In addition to chapter titles, author Sneed Collard also makes extensive use of subheads throughout the book. How do these contribute to the organization of the book—and also the sharing of information? To put it another way, do they make the book easier to follow? How? Also notice the boxed information embedded in many of the illustrations. Do these little boxes have something in common? Talk about why the author chose to use this approach rather than simply incorporating this additional information into the regular flow of the text. Is this format effective? Why? Talk about how/when students might use a similar strategy in their own writing.

9. Illustrations. Book designers often say that illustrations and words should complement, not replicate, each other. That is, each should provide information that the other does not. Read the information on page 15 and the first paragraph of page 16 aloud as your students study the photos on page 14. What do we learn from each (illustrations and words) that we do not learn from the other?

10. Research. Many books, including novels, rely on research for authenticity. But nowhere is research more important than in an informational text like this one. Discuss why this matters so much. If the book were based strictly on Collard’s opinion or observations made in his back yard, would it be as convincing? Discuss how and where this author searched for his information. On a scale of 1 to 10, how credible is this research, in your students’ view? (Note that much of the book is based on the work of ornithologist Dick Hutto, described on pages 17 through 19. Students should also be aware that Collard spent extensive time in the field himself, interviewed additional specialists, and also took the photos that illustrate the book. Also point out the extensive additional sources listed in “Digging Deeper,” page 46. Your students may wish to explore some of these resources.)

11. Transitions. Transitions, the CCSS remind us, are vital ways to link ideas in all forms of writing: narrative, argument, and information. In introducing this discussion, see if your students can list 20 transitional words or phrases (however, next, for example, on the other hand, because, nevertheless, and so on). Sneed Collard is an author noted for the strong transitions that make his work so easy to read and follow. Share one or both of the following passages with students and ask them to identify as many transitions as they can—and to discuss how each links ideas: “Home, Sweet Blackened Home,” beginning of Chapter 3, page 21; and “Beetle Bonanza,” page 24. Keep in mind that good transitions are often more than a word long and may occur mid-sentence. Also, there may be more than one transitional phrase within a given sentence. (Note: Permission is granted to print and distribute these pages to your students. They can talk with partners, and identify transitions orally or use highlighters to mark up the text.)

12. Transitional endings. One of the delightful things about a chapter book is that it provides multiple opportunities to consider beginnings and endings. Chapter endings are particularly important because when a reader comes to the end of a chapter, it’s always tempting to find something else to do! No author wants readers to do that! Notice for example the ending to Chapter 2, bottom of page 19: “What he found astonished him.” What is the likely impact of these words on the reader? How does this line provide a transition into Chapter 3?

13. Word choice. Words always matter. In informational writing, though, they can be particularly important because, as we’re reminded in the CCSS, an author must use “domain-specific vocabulary”—what we might call the language of the territory—in order to help us understand a particular topic: in this case, wildfire and its effect on birds’ habitats. This particular book has a special feature—a glossary—to help with word definitions. As you go through the text (and without peeking at the glossary), have students list words they think should be defined. Check your final list against the glossary at the end of the book. Also note how well some terms are defined in context—by how they are used, that is. See, for example, “salvage logging” on page 32.

14. Voice and tone. The Common Core suggests that an informational piece should have an “objective, formal tone,” which some might describe as respectful of the topic or free of personal bias. Does the author achieve that? Identify three or more passages that are good examples of the voice or tone you hear in this book. Brainstorm all the words you can think of that describe these passages: e.g., serious, engaging, thoughtful, humorous, energetic, dramatic, exciting, passionate, reflective. (Note: Reading aloud makes it easier for most students to describe a given text.)

15. Reading graphics. In addition to numerous illustrations, author Sneed Collard includes an important graphic titled “’Hottest’ Fire Birds” on page 25. Ask students to summarize, in a few short lines, the message of this graphic. How does it support the author’s main message?

16. Genre. The author makes a strong case for encouraging us to see wildfires (those that do not threaten human lives or residences) in a positive way. So—should this book be classified as an argument? Or an informational text? Have students write a response, taking a position on this and defending it with examples from the book. (Note: You may wish to access the CCSS definitions to help students make a decision on this.)

17. Crafting an argument. At the close of Chapter 3, page 26, Collard makes a particularly strong statement based on Dick Hutto’s research: “Perhaps humans should stop looking at naturally caused fires as our enemy and start looking at them as an essential part of nature.” Do your students agree? Have them take a position and make an argument for or against the “essential part of nature” position, using information not only from this book, but other sources as well.

18. Impact of the book. Good informational writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding of a topic. What do your students learn from this book? Make a list of new ideas, surprises, or discoveries. Take a moment to re-examine the reactions to wildfires students expressed prior to reading the book. Have their opinions or feelings changed in any way?

19. Conclusion. In a sense, all of Chapter 5 is a conclusion. But the author also offers an expanded concluding statement in the section titled “Still Work to Do,” page 42 and following. How strong is this conclusion? What thoughts or beliefs do your students think the author wants us to take away from this reading experience?

20. Personal research. Ask students to extend their learning by visiting a burn site, interviewing local firefighters, researching the impact of fires in their home state or elsewhere, following up with resources listed under “Digging Deeper,” page 46, or even observing and photographing wild birds in a new burn habitat if there is one close by. Invite them to share their findings.

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Sneed's son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

Sneed’s son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

About the author . . .

Author Sneed B. Collard III graduated with honors in biology from the University of California at Berkeley and earned his masters in scientific instrumentation from U. C. Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 65 books for younger readers, including Animal Dads, Teeth, The Prairie Builders, Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, and Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. To learn more about Sneed or schedule a school or conference visit, please go to his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com or the website of his publishing house, Bucking Horse Books, www.buckinghorsebooks.com

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Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be sharing reviews of some of the best literature to enter his life of late—but he doesn’t want to share titles just yet! They’re a surprise. Jeff always chooses the most readable, memorable books, though, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for those reviews. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

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

Summary
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.

Scaffolding
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.

Conferences
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.

Woodward-VickiJeff3249a

Introduction

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

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

 

The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

Does the topic matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is “logical” order anyway?

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

Logical order should also include these elements:

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

 

3 Additional Tips

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

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

 

What to Teach: 6 Essentials

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

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

 

Some final thoughts

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

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

 

 

Fearless Writing

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

Genre: Teacher resource text

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

 

Special Features

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

Exclamation Mark

exclamation mark. 2013. Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. New York: Scholastic. Unpaginated.
Genre: Playful fantasy narrative in which an exclamation mark comes to life
Ages:
Aimed at primary readers—but with abundant lessons for all ages

Summary
If ever there was a charming book, this is it. It focuses on that much maligned Kapow of conventions: the exclamation mark. Overused? Perhaps. Misunderstood and underestimated? Definitely. In keeping with the quirky and irresistible voice for which Rosenthal is famous, the story of the little mark that makes a difference is told in a gentle humor that belies its serious philosophical message: individuality rocks.

The story is a simple one. The little exclamation mark knows from day one that he is different. At first, he longs to fit in, to be part of the group. And oh, how he tries. It’s no use, of course, because like all of us, he’s an individual (even if he doesn’t yet know it). He discovers his true identity quite accidentally, responding to the annoying inquiries of—as you might guess—the question mark. All kids have been pestered by questions they’ve heard a thousand times (Do you like school? What grade are you in? How tall are you now?), and they will love this part of the book—and the exclamation mark’s animated and heated response.

Once the exclamation mark begins to understand who he really is, endless possibilities unfold. He gradually comes to realize his power. He can make things happen, and he does, much to the delight of his friends. The question is, of course, when should he unleash that power? And that, of course, is the question many a writing teacher wishes his/her students would ask, for surely the exclamation mark is the most overused of all conventions. On the other hand, it might also be one of the least appreciated. Perhaps if it appeared less frequently, and at just the right moments, we would have more respect for its impact and diversity.

Tom Lichtenheld’s simple but expressive drawings lend the perfect complement to a tale that is partly a reflection on punctuation but mostly an essay on personal identity and self-confidence. The book may not have a flashy multi-colored layout, but its winsome little punctuation people have an allure all their own. The underlying premise that punctuation marks have personality, awareness, and feelings is irresistibly appealing, and Lichtenheld’s understated art (ingenious as always) shows us in subtle ways just how much pressure the world of conventions can put on one of its most interesting members.

In the Classroom
1. Preparation. As you preview the book, think about how you might like to share it. True, it doesn’t feature the kind of intricate detail that demands close-ups. Nevertheless, there is much artistic nuance in the presentation, so if a document camera is an option, do consider it. Otherwise, you’ll want to gather students around as closely as possible so that they can notice the small but oh-so-important changes of expression on those punctuation “faces.”

2. Background. This book will be of particular interest to students in K-2, many of whom will find they can read all or part of it on their own (They may wish to do this after you share it). Most are likely to be familiar with the basic punctuation marks shared in the story, but because their role and function is critical to understanding, a quick review would not hurt. Ask students to explain in their own words the purpose of the period, question mark, and exclamation mark. Which of these marks do they use in their own writing, and when or why? As readers, do they find punctuation marks helpful? How so? Also ask them to imagine what it would be like if punctuation marks were live characters with personalities. What would each one be like? Which one do they think might be quiet, inquisitive, or loud and expressive?

3. Oral reading. Share the book aloud, taking care not to go too quickly. It’s tempting to speed through it since the amount of text per page is small (with a couple of exceptions), but students need time to notice the facial expressions.

4. Topic. Something happens to the exclamation mark in this story. What? Talk about this with students, and even take time to read the book a second time as they ponder this question. It’s the heart of the story, after all. What is the exclamation mark like at the beginning of the story—and what is he like at the end? This kind of comparison could be challenging for primary students to write about, but you can discuss it orally. Ask students to notice how the exclamation mark’s facial expressions change through the book.

5. Personal connection. Once you’ve read the story and talked about how the little exclamation mark changes, bring the story down to a personal level. This is a good time to share the copy on the inside front panel of the book’s dust jacket (letting students know that this is often a good place to look for additional information about any book). Notice in particular the last lines: “Because we all have an inner exclamation mark. The question is, how to find it . . .” What does the author mean by “inner exclamation mark”? Does the little exclamation mark experience feelings that we, as humans, have, too? For example, do we also try hard to fit in sometimes? And do we feel good when we discover a special talent we didn’t know we had? Have students write about this. (Tip: Self-discovery is a sophisticated topic. Help students out with a little modeling, telling the story of a time you worked to fit in with a group—or a time you discovered something good about yourself.)

6. Word choice. Writers sometimes use words their readers might not know. Is this a good thing? Why? Look again at the words author Amy Krouse Rosenthal uses to describe the exclamation mark’s feelings when he can’t be part of the gang: “He was confused, flummoxed, and deflated.” Are these words new to many of your students? Find out with a show of hands. Who knows one? Two? Or all three? Then talk about learning new words from context—from the way they are used and what surrounds them. What clues do we have about the meanings of these words? For example, how does the exclamation mark feel in general at this point in the story? So—are “confused, flummoxed, and deflated” likely to be good feelings? Also, look carefully at the facial expressions for each one, and have students use those expressions as clues to guess word meanings. You may also want to check an online thesaurus for synonyms and make lists. How many of your students feel ready to use at least one of these words in their own writing? Which word is their favorite?

7. The all-important turning point. The Common Core Standards for Narrative emphasize the importance of a turning point in the action—a moment when something changes, and things seem to take off in a different direction. Being able to identify the turning point in a story increases students’ ability to write compelling narratives that are more than simple lists of events. In this story, the turning point occurs just after the exclamation mark (depressed by his ability to not fit in with the periods) decides to run away. Enter the question mark, who deluges him with a barrage of questions until he verbally explodes: “Stop!” Instead of identifying this moment for them, see if your students can pinpoint it themselves (Tip: Turning through the pages once more is enough—you needn’t read everything again). Then discuss it; how is the exclamation mark different after he lets his feelings out? Once you identify the turning point, have students write a short personal narrative (on any topic) that has a turning point of its own. Remind them that after a turning point in a story, the main character feels or acts differently because of something that happened.

8. Argument writing. Talk about the concept of individuality. What does it mean to stand out from the crowd? Is it important to have your very own identity, to be different from everyone else on the planet? Why? Ask students to write about this, taking a stand: Is it more important to fit in—or to be yourself, even if that means not fitting in at all?

9. Presentation. Things begin unfolding rapidly for the exclamation mark just after his fearsome explosion with the giant “Stop!” Talk about how this word is presented in the book. Why is it so BIG? Now notice what happens when the question mark—far from being intimidated by this loud voice—is intrigued, and prompts the exclamation mark to show his stuff. He starts small—with a “Hi”—but notice the size of the print compared to what we’ve seen so far in the book. Is it bigger? What is the big print showing us? Now look at the words on the next page . . . and the next . . . and the pages after that. What is happening to the print? Students should see an explosion of colors and sizes. Talk about how this reflects the character’s voice. How should we read these words aloud? (Have students try it out.) A few pages later, something even more striking occurs. When the exclamation mark returns to show off for his buddies, the print no longer stays on the lines. See if students notice this, and ask them what they think it means.

10. Something conventionally new. The main characters in this book are the exclamation mark, question mark, and period. But another mark of punctuation has a cameo appearance. It’s the ellipsis. Ask students if they know what an ellipsis is. Can someone find an example from the print in your room? Then leaf through the book slowly and ask students to stop you when you come to an ellipsis. You should find two examples. Read each sentence containing an ellipsis aloud, and see if your students can define its purpose in their own words. Why is this such a handy and creative mark of punctuation? What can it do that no other mark can?

11. Original narrative. Some students may enjoy creating an original narrative with the ellipsis, comma, apostrophe, capital letter, or any other convention as a central character. Have them think about what this character might learn about him- or herself, and what special skill or talent this mark might have. (Suggestion: Consider having students work in pairs on this writing, with one as author and the other as illustrator.)

12. Argument: Using exclamation marks wisely. What if we all began using exclamation marks in place of periods? Would that be too much of a good thing? Why? Talk about this, using a short example that you write yourself in front of students: e.g., I got up early today! I had a great breakfast! I went for a hike! I saw a bear! Talk about what happens when exclamation marks come after every sentence. How does this affect a reader? In this (or your own) example, would it be better to keep just one of the exclamation marks? Which one? Ask students to write an argument taking a position on this: Should we use all the exclamation marks we can to make our writing more exciting—or should we only use them once in a while?

13. Research. How old is the exclamation mark? Do any of your students have a guess? Who might have invented it and why? (Look up exclamation mark online to find interesting theories about its origin and alternate names for this mark of punctuation. You’ll discover that it did not appear on keyboards until the 1970s; before that, a typist had to type a period, back space, then add an apostrophe. The exclamation mark is occasionally used in conjunction with the question mark to indicate astonishment: “You mean to say you are ninety years old?!” This combination mark goes by the name of the interrobang. And, as you may already know, the exclamation mark has alternate uses in different languages around the world.)

14. Real world writing. In days and weeks to come, look for examples of exclamation marks in writing you come across: books, magazines, newspapers, ads, letters, greeting cards. Talk about a few examples and whether you think each author made a good choice in deciding to use an exclamation mark.

15. Like dancing! As the inside back flap of the dust jacket tells us, Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld have been called the “Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of children’s literature.” That’s a perfect description! But . . . your students probably don’t have one clue what it means! (Do you know these people?) Unless you’re lucky enough to have a movie clip from one of their iconic films, you can simply explain that Astaire and Rogers were a famous, much revered dancing couple who made a number of movies together from the mid 1930s through most of the 1940s. Astaire and Rogers made extraordinarily difficult dance steps look simple and graceful. So, knowing that, why might someone compare an author and illustrator with a dance team? How are writing and illustrating like dancing?

16. For more info . . . You can find both author and illustrator online. Check out whoisamy.com
and tomlichtenheld.com Your students may want to read more book by this incredible team, including Duck! Rabbit! and The OK Book.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
It is officially summer, and Jeff is busy putting together a summer reading list that you’ll want to explore. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Don’t forget: We can customize a workshop, classroom demo, or other writing consultation to suit the needs of your classroom, school or district. So, for the BEST professional development blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

wt10_7     CW6 Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wunspOntimwewEhadverfueroolsguverninhoWpeeplroteaNdthesecdmadreddingdfcult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff reviews the remarkable historic narrative Bomb, a Newbery Honor book by Steve Sheinkin. Not many informational books can also claim to be thrillers. You won’t want to miss it. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards, writing process and workshop, and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.