Tag Archive: Common Core writing standards



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

Genre: Teacher resource book

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

1. Why Read?

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

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

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

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

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

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

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.


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



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


The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Writing:

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

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

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

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

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

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

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


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

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

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

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

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

Your Birthday in History

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

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

Argumentative Writing:

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

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

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

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

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

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s Butterfly

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

imgres-4 imgres-5


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

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

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

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

#1—Do not over-model

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

(Page 137)

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


About the author . . .

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .


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

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

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


Getting to the Core of the Common Core


Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

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

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


A Caveat

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


Two Things to Notice

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

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


The Top 8

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

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

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

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

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

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

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

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

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

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


What kinds of purposes are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

Example 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

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

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

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

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

World without Fish

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

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

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

Teaching Leads

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

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

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

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

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

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

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

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

Harris and Me

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

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

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

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

The Animal Dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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


Teaching Detail

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

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

FEATURE 4: Structure

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

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

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

Main Point or Argument & Support

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

Revealing the Solution

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

Comparison and Contrast

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

Question and Answer

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


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

Step by Step

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

Chronological Order

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

Visual Patterns

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

Point and Counterpoint

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

Recurring Theme

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

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

Planning Your Writing

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


Drama: A Different Organizational Design

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

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

Act 1

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

Act 2

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

Act 3

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


PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

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

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

Teaching Structure

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

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

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150


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

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


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

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

Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure

I know that the Common Core State Standards, and the changes in standardized testing accompanying the standards, are hot topics (if not controversial ones) for students, teachers, parents, school districts and boards, state legislatures, and many other public education stakeholders. So, let’s take a break from that conversation/discussion/pot-stirring for a few moments. I’m not going to mention the CCSS again in this post. Don’t read anything diabolical or political into this! I’m just hoping to emphasize that the instructional wisdom we offer in our posts about strong reading/writing classrooms is not different from what we would be suggesting if there were no CCSS. (Oops—I slipped up. From this point on, there will be no specific mention of the CCSS.) A balance and variety of great literature—fiction and non-fiction to dive into both as readers and writers, a balance of narrative, poetry, informational, and argument writing, teachers modeling through their own writing, teaching writing process and the six traits of writing, students as assessors—of their own writing, the writing of classmates, and the writing of professionals, students as revisers/editors, etc. These have always been important elements of strong reading/writing classrooms, regardless of grade level. It just so happens that the CCSS (last mention—I promise) also values and emphasizes these elements—directly and indirectly. And STG is here to help you make the connections.

OK, the lure of gold is calling to me, just like it did for thousands of adventurous souls willing to risk life and limb to strike it rich in the Yukon way back in 1897. Up dogs, up! Mush! We’re heading north!


Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure. 2013. David Meissner and Kim Richardson. Holesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.
Genre: Non-fiction, informational
Grade Levels: 4th and up
Features: Historical timeline, detailed author’s note, bibliography, photo credits.
168 pages (including back matter)
This true adventure story sprung from a bag of old letters, telegrams, and newspaper clippings belonging to the book’s co-author, Kim Richardson. The contents of this bag, passed down through family members, were written and collected by a relative of Richardson’s, Stanley Pearce, who along with his friend and business partner, Marshall Bond were two of the early wave of Yukon gold stampeders heading north in 1897. The authenticity of this tale is a direct result of the amazing primary source treasure of Richardson’s bag and the first-hand research and experiences of lead author, David Meissner. (See Author’s Note, page 156.) Readers will  feel the weight of the hundred pound loads carried on the backs of Pearce, Bond, and the crew they enlisted. Readers will shiver in the sub-zero temperatures of the Alaskan and Canadian north. Readers will ache with hunger and exhaustion as their food supplies dwindle. And readers will twitch with anticipation and gold fever—could this be the big bonanza?—with each flake of gold shining in their pans or small nugget uncovered after hours of shoveling and sluicing. So, were they among the few who really did “strike it rich?” Or were Pearce and Bond among the many whose fortune was merely surviving the adventure and making it back to tell their tale? Up readers, up! Mush! Read on!

In the Classroom
1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. I suggest first reading the Author’s Note (page 156) to set the stage for all that David Meissner went through before doing the actual writing of this book. Because of all the primary source material available, Meissner and Richardson had a great deal of editing and transcribing work to do with the letters, telegrams, diary entries, photographs, and newspaper articles, along with the creation of original material to connect all the parts of the story. If you plan to use this as a partial or complete read-aloud, the photographs and other visuals, so important to this book, need to be shared with students using a document camera. This is a must to help readers connect to the textual elements.
2. Background–Gold. What do your students know about gold? As an anticipatory set, have students do a little brainstorming focused on the questions, “What do you know about gold?” “What do know about the Klondike gold rush?” What is their knowledge of gold as an element, its uses for jewelry and beyond, why it’s valued, where it’s found, its properties, etc.? This could be followed by some quick online research to gather some highlights about this element. Humans have been obsessed with gold for thousands of years, have adorned themselves with it, have hoarded it, destroyed the environment searching for it, and have killed each other for it—so really, what’s up with gold? This will help set the stage for understanding “gold fever,” the term “gold rush,” and help explain why two educated men from established backgrounds would risk everything for a piece of the action in the Klondike.

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

4. Author’s Note—Research/Becoming an Expert. As I suggested to you in #1 above, I would have students begin their experiences with this book on page 156—the Author’s Note. Mr. Meissner begins by saying, “I didn’t know much about gold before this project.” What a fantastic thing for students to hear from the book’s author! How can you write a book about something you don’t know much about? Research! Research! Research! Ask your students to find out exactly what the author did to become an expert on his chosen topic. Begin a list of the kinds of research Mr. Meissner did prior to writing.
A. Met with Mr. Richardson, the keeper of the bag of letters, articles, diaries, telegrams, etc.
B. Read the contents of the bag and began sorting, organizing, and asking questions.
C. Answered the question, “How could I write about the adventures and hardships of the Klondike gold rush while sitting in the comfort of my home in the lower forty-eight states?” His answer? Retrace the steps of Pearce and Bond as much as possible—experience what they experienced.
D. Interviews, conversations, reading, etc.
E. (and so on)

What advice can they take from Mr. Meissner to use in their own writing? What advice might apply when you are writing about a personal experience—something you that happened to you, where you are already an expert? What do readers get when writers are “experts?” When writers really do their research?

5. Organization—Yukon Prep/Making Lists. Why do people make lists? What kinds of lists do you and your students make most frequently? Even if their lists aren’t written, do they have mental checklists for getting ready for school, preparing for a sports team practice, or preparing for a writing assignment? One big reason for making lists is, of course, to plan and organize thoughts, materials, or tasks prior to beginning a project. Schools even provide a supply list prior to the beginning of a new year to make sure students will have what they need. Ask your students to imagine they are going to spend the night at a friend’s house or with a relative. Have them make a list of what they would take with them—a supply list, of sorts. They may only come up with a few items. (Some of your students may have experiences with overnight camping—they could make a supply list for a trip like this.)

Meet with a partner or in small groups to compare lists and discuss the reasons behind each item’s inclusion. (Be sure to create and share your own list—prepping for an overnight stay, a weekend trip, or even a vacation.) What kinds of things were most common? Why? Could some of these items be considered as “essential” for “survival?” What does it mean if something is “essential?” Ask students to do an online search for “the ten essentials of hiking/backpacking.” Discuss why these items are included on the list and a computer, for instance, is not.

Now, look at the list on page 15, “A Yukon Outfit,” reflecting the kinds of supplies Pearce and Bond would have gathered before departing for the Yukon. What general categories—food, tools, clothing, etc.—of items did they bring? What factors would have to be considered when creating a list for a trip like this? Working with your students, create a new list of the factors suggested. Some ideas might be length of stay, weather conditions, terrain, time of year, mode(s) of transportation, proximity to “civilization,” etc. Using “A Yukon Outfit” as a guide, students could work in research groups to create “A Sahara Desert Outfit,” “A Miami, Florida Outfit,” “A Tasmanian Outfit,” etc.

6. Communication—Then and Now. Stanley Pearce agreed to write about his adventures as a correspondent for a newspaper, The Denver Republican. What’s a newspaper? (I’m only partially kidding with this question.) What does it mean to be a correspondent? In 1897, how did people get their news, communicate, and keep in touch? How do people do the same today? Create a T-chart to compare and contrast methods of communication, 1897 (then) and 2014 (now). Some things to consider placing on the chart:  newspaper, email, phone, telegraph/telegram, computers, etc.

People still write and send letters today, but are they as important to communication as they were in 1897? The letters that Pearce and Bond wrote to family members contained news of their daily activities, personal health/well being, and updates on their progress in the gold fields. These letters would have taken weeks, months or more to reach family members who were anxiously awaiting the news. Return letters from home also took months to be delivered to the Yukon and may have travelled by train, ship, horse, dog sled, and human carrier. These letters were almost as valuable as the gold the men were seeking. Have your students ever written or received a letter? Try having them keep a mini-journal (a personal blog on paper) for a day listing, describing, and commenting on their activities in the classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria and hallways. Imagine they are writing to a parent or family member far away—someone they haven’t seen or spoken with for a long time. Specific details will be important to the recipients—names of friends, descriptions of weather, food eaten, how even small moments are spent. Using their notes and example letters from the book—e.g. the letter written from Stanley Pearce to his mother on pages 50-53—students write their own letters, placed into addressed envelopes (some students may have never experienced this) for actual mailing. I would want students to reflect (further conversation and writing) on this process compared to the ease of phone calling, texting, tweeting, chirping, whistling, liking and friending, etc.

7. Transportation—Then and Now. Clearly, communication methods and technology have changed between 1897 and 2014. Modes of transportation have also gone through a bit of a revolution in the same time period. In a similar manner to the T-chart in #5 above, students could chart the modes of transportation experienced by Pearce and Bonds (and all their equipment) as they travelled from Seattle, Washington to Dawson City in the Northwest Territories. Steamship, rowboat, train, horseback, dog sled, foot could all be nearly replaced today by airplane and helicopter. This is where the book’s photographs and maps are more than mere handy references. Using a document camera, I would linger over the photos (as unpleasant as a few are) of the dead horses on pages 48-49, of the 1500 “Golden Stairs” at Chilkoot Pass on page 51, of the hand-built boats on pages 128-129, of the Whitehorse Rapids on pages 62-63, and of the “traffic jam” on the White Pass Trail on pages 42-43. (Of course you and your students will have your own favorites, as well.) Each of these photos would be worthy of a discussion and written reflection. Gold fever was truly a powerful “sickness” if these men were willing to suffer the hardships they endured just to get to the Yukon.

8. Voice–Readers Theater. The letters, telegrams, and diary entries from Pearce and Bond highlighted in #5 above, are not merely important sources of information to be researched, they are essential to the telling of this true adventure. They are the written thoughts, observations, feelings, experiences of Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond, two very real people. David Meissner has thoughtfully selected, transcribed, and organized these writings to assist Pearce and Bond in the telling of their stories. I believe we owe it to Mr. Pearce and Mr. Bond (and the author) to “hear” their voices by reading at least some the letters and diary entries aloud. This could be done as reader’s theater, with the help of your students to create a “script.” This could include portions of letters, diary entries, and selected parts of the author’s text to serve as the story’s “narrator.” Your students might be interested in using their script performed by students as voice over to a Ken Burns style moving montage of the book’s photographs, with period music accompaniment.

images-1  imgres-2

9. Jack London and Robert W. Service. I would be remiss if I didn’t urge you to enrich the already rich content of this book with the novels/short stories (or at least excerpts) of Jack London and the poetry of Robert W. Service. In fact, this book begins with an excerpt from Service’s poem “The Spell of the Yukon.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org will provide you with both his background and access to many of his poems. They are fun to read aloud and provide a poet’s view of the Yukon, the wild times, and the many wild characters who ventured north for gold. Students might want to try their hand at imitating Service’s structure/rhyming scheme with original poems about Pearce, Bond, Dawson City, etc.

You will discover from Call of the Klondike, Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond became acquainted with Jack London in Dawson City and even “hung out” with him. In fact, Buck, the canine protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is based on Jack, one of Pearce and Bond’s dogs. (Refer to pages 142-144 for more on this, including a photograph.) A quick visit to http://www.jacklondon.com will give both a brief biography and a list of his written work.

10. Argument—Human “Needs” vs. Environmental Impact, Mineral Extraction—Past and Present, Affect on the Native People of the Northwest Territories, etc. In a section at the end of the book, “Casualties of the Gold Rush,” the author appropriately opens the door for further thinking, research, and writing. The environment and the Native people’s side of the gold rush story are two of the topics, suggested or implied, for students to pursue further. These would make excellent topics for discussion, debate, public speaking, argument/persuasive writing, or even a mock trial.

Visit http://www.bydavidmeissner.com to find out more about David Meissner’s background, books, and articles.

On Another Note—
Check out http://www.goodnaturepublishing.com, a recently discovered site and
an excellent source for cool posters for your classroom.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff (me) will be reviewing one (or more—I can’t decide) of the following fascinating books: Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50:Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross (the book’s slip cover unfolds into a map!), or When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill. In the meantime, if reading this or any of our other 134 informative posts has you thinking about professional development in writing instruction during the remainder of this school year, we can help. Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can make it happen. 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.

In Just One Lifetime


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

Figure Skating:

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

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


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

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

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

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

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

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



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

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

Grade Levels: K and up

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

40 pages (including back matter)

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


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

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

 In the Classroom

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

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

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

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


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

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

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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


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


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

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

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









The Matchbox Diary. 2013. Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 40 pp.

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

Features: Magnificently detailed illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, alternating between soft, rich color and sepia-toned moments, framed like old photos, as the story jumps from the present to the past.    


Award winning author Paul Fleischman has written so many of  my favorite books to share with students–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, Seedfolks, Whirligig, Bull Run, Weslandia, and many more. As I sit at my desk writing this, all I have to do is look around the room to understand why his latest book, The Matchbox Diary called to me the first time I saw it. On my shelves, I’ve got old cigar boxes (wood and cardboard), handmade wooden boxes with ornate metal latches, and sturdy stationery boxes. Each one of these boxes holds items other than their original contents—I’ve lifted the lid on a cardboard box with a magnetic lid closure to peek inside. The box once held cards, blank on the inside with photographs of rural Italy on the outside. Now, its contents rattle and clink—metal campaign buttons, foreign coins, keys on a souvenir keychain from Yellowstone Park. Simply touching the treasures sends my mind time traveling back to places and moments, and the stories each holds. This idea, that the things we hold on to are keepers of our life’s stories, is at the heart of this beautiful book, told solely through dialogue—the conversation of a young girl and her great-grandfather meeting for the first time.

The book begins with the girl and her great-grandfather in a warm, amber-toned room busy with bookshelves, tables, and display cases. And each one of these is filled with books, boxes of all sizes, clocks, and antiques. The opening line is an invitation to the girl (and to readers) to “Pick whatever you like the most,” and he will tell its story. The illustration begs readers to pour over the room and search for the item each likes best. I reached for a magnifying glass (used by my grandfather when he worked with his stamp collection) so I could get a closer view of what the room had to offer. Unlike the girl, I couldn’t make up my mind. She chooses wisely, a cigar box packed neatly with row upon row of matchboxes. The close-up drawing of the box filled with boxes is my favorite. Readers can’t help but linger, looking closely at the logos, designs, and brand names on the matchboxes. (As a younger person, I used to collect matchboxes or matchbooks from restaurants or store giving them away as promotional items.) When the girl asks about what’s in each of the little boxes, great-grandpa replies “My diary.”

As she selects boxes to open, great-grandfather tells her the story of his childhood through the smaller stories that are held by the items in each box. He explains to her that when he was a young boy about her age, he began keeping this diary of objects because he couldn’t read or write. The larger story that unfolds is that of an Italian immigrant family coming to America for a better life. The sepia toned illustrations accompanying the matchbox stories remind readers of looking through an old family photo album. One of the matchboxes holds a bottle cap, a common, everyday object to most readers. But, like the contents of every box, the cap has a story. It comes from Naples, where the storyteller’s family has to stay for three days waiting for their ship to America. So many “firsts” happen here: seeing his first car, discovering drinks that come in bottles, setting eyes on the ocean for the first time. The bottle cap is the gatekeeper to important personal and family memories, like each of the items in his matchbox diary.


In the Classroom

1. The Matchbox Diary, Part II—Coming Soon. Rather than our customary sharing of ways to use this book in your classroom, I’m going to do something different.  I’d like to encourage you to read this book yourself, either by purchasing it, borrowing, flipping through it in a bookstore.  My next post will take you through my experience—from beginning to end—of using this inspiring book with Mr. L’s classroom of real fifth grade students from an elementary school near where I live. I’ll take you through the process we used, and I’m hoping to be able to share some of their writing, as well. I’m heading back to Mr. L’s classroom today for my third visit this week. As a former full-time teacher, I can’t tell you how great it feels to be back in the saddle for even an hour a day as a guest teacher.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will be reviewing Amy Krause Rosenthal’s exciting new book, Exclamation Mark, about how a familiar punctuation mark discovers his purpose. I will also be sharing the process and results from using The Matchbox Diary with a classroom of fifth grade students. (I have been having such an amazing time!!) Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.



Does the Common Core Address Voice?

How much does voice matter?

It’s no secret that voice is my favorite among the six traits. It is, after all, the primary reason for writing, and one of two main reasons for reading—the other being to get information.

Donald Graves called voice the “driving force” of writing and the “imprint of ourselves” on the page. To value voice is to value individuality—and the reverse is equally true. The less we value it, the more we encourage young writers to sound like clones of one another. Do we want this? “To ignore voice,” Graves said, “is to present the [writing] process as a lifeless, mechanical act. Divorcing voice from process is like omitting salt from stew, love from sex, or sun from gardening” (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1986, 227).

A world without seasoning, love, or sunshine sounds bleak indeed, but that is precisely the writing world we will inherit if we bleach voice from students’ writing—including informational writing and argument.

Wait, though. Are we doing that? In some cases, I believe we are, yes. And it could be, in part, because a superficial interpretation of the Common Core could lead us to conclude that voice doesn’t really matter, doesn’t even belong in some writing, that it’s excess frosting on an already well decorated cake. Let’s reconsider.

What voice looks like in the Common Core

First of all, let’s be honest. You won’t find the word “voice” anywhere in the Common Core standards for writing or language. But that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. There are many words to describe voice: style, tone, technique, and connection to the audience, among others. And each of these things is emphasized in the Common Core.

But why beat around the bush? Why don’t the Common Core standards simply call, directly and clearly, for students to “write with more voice”? Frankly, I wish they did. But I understand why this did not happen. I am sure the writers of the standards were very concerned about misinterpretation—and with good reason.

Everywhere I go, I ask teachers what they think of first when they hear the word voice. The number one answer, hands down, is personality. Now, make no mistake. I think personality is part of voice. This is why we can distinguish between Edgar Allan Poe and Jerry Seinfeld. But we can’t very well have a writing standard—something we require students to meet—that states in effect,

  • Students will write with vivid and captivating personality.

We can wish for that—but we can’t demand it (except when we go to the bookstore, of course). Standards aren’t, after all, lists of wishes. They’re lists of requirements. It’s one thing to require clear expression, and quite another to demand that students mesmerize us. A standard calling for voice might seem to do precisely that, even if that were not the intent.

On the other hand, voice is more—much more—than personality. Once we define it more thoroughly and expansively, we recognize that much of what is required in the Common Core contributes to voice in a very big way.

More than personality

Every single one of the following things contributes directly to voice (in all genres, not just narrative or memoir)—and every one, I would argue, is worth teaching or encouraging if we want students to write prose worth reading (or one day, publishing):

  • Honesty (CC requirement for appropriate tone)
  • Curiosity about the topic (CC requirement for good research)
  • Confidence about one’s knowledge of the topic (Ditto)
  • An eye for detail (CC requirement for effective use of detail)
  • Capability to select the most intriguing details available (Ditto)
  • Conciseness (CC requirement for clear, effective word choice)
  • Avoidance of repetition (Ditto)
  • Avoidance of qualifying language—e.g.,In some cases, certain observers noted, it seemed almost likely that the plan might one day come close to working (Ditto)
  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

When I read Bill Bryson’s book In a Sunburned Country, I don’t find myself saying, “Wow—some personality!” No. Instead, I say to myself, “Here’s a guy who really knows a lot about Australia—and talk about research. He took time to dig up details that matter—and he held my attention from page one right through to the end.” Just imagine reading informational reports or arguments from your students and feeling blown away by each writer’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic. Imagine reading a report you could not put down. We can feel like that all the time if we expand our definition of voice, and teach the things that contribute to voice: e.g., the things on the bulleted list (all of which are linked to the Common Core).

So—when it’s said that voice is nowhere to be found in the Common Core, I respectfully disagree. Elements that contribute to voice (such as detail, knowledge, clarity, strong leads or conclusions) abound in the Common Core. And then, there’s that stuff about tone and style . . .

DIRECT Common Core Connections to Voice:

Style, Tone, Technique, and Ability to Reach the Audience

Have a quick look at the Common Core standards for writing (www.commoncore.org). Standard 1 calls for argument that establishes and maintains a “formal style.” Standard 2 calls for the same with respect to informational writing. Standard 3 asks that narrative be written with an “effective technique.”

By grades 11 and 12, these standards have expanded ever so slightly to require both argument and informational reports that “establish and maintain an objective style and formal tone.” Standard 4, which addresses narrative, calls for “clear and coherent writing in which development, organization, and style are appropriate to the task, purpose and audience.”

Style and tone are not precisely the same as voice, though they are related. Still, we need to be careful how we interpret words like “tone.” The word tone, according to the dictionary, means tenor, manner, or attitude. A formal tone conveys a certain respect for both topic and purpose—which, in the case of informational writing or argument, is to convey information clearly and without bias. Formal can mean proper, appropriate, or even reserved; note, however, that it does not have to imply dull, lifeless, tedious, or sleep-inducing.

Style, by dictionary definition, is much more expansive. It means approach or technique. So while tone refers to the sound of the writing, style encompasses all the ways a writer crafts words to ensure that the message he or she intends to get across is both understandable and engaging enough to keep the reader reading.

Technique essentially means method (or skill), so a writer’s technique for making narrative compelling could most certainly involve voice—together with a captivating plot, unforgettable characters, and settings that draw us into the time and place of the story.

How about the word objective? Here’s where things get tricky—and where, I think, we must be very careful not to misguide our students. The word objective, according to the dictionary, can mean—among other things—impartial, unbiased, or detached. The words impartial and unbiased have a very positive connotation that suggests we can trust the writer not to unfairly impose his or her personal biases on any information, thereby distorting truth or reality. So far so good. The word detached suggests something else altogether.

Detached means aloof, indifferent, unemotional, uninvolved, or distant. This kind of writing is, in fact, fully appropriate in some contexts: e.g., for legal contracts or briefs; purely informational documents such as dictionaries or encyclopedias; medical journals; scientific summaries or reports; how-to brochures on filing taxes or preparing wills and trusts; police reports; certain technical documents, and so on. People read such documents because, like a medical student cramming for an exam or a meteorologist predicting a storm, they have a pressing need for raw information in its most unadorned form.

Other documents, however, are designed to make information accessible to a general audience that is not driven by such a need—and will not keep reading without a compelling reason. Writing of this sort would include histories, memoirs, journalistic reports, editorials, reviews, nonfiction books of all sorts, signage for museums or other similar venues, documentary scripts, travel literature, and many similar writings you can think of from your own life experience.

To suggest that all informational writing or all persuasive writing is alike is absurd. And so, we need to teach our students to identify not just the broad umbrella genre—e.g., informational writing—but the smaller, purpose-and-audience-specific genre, e.g., textbook, informational flyer, film review, jury summons. That way, it will be far easier to achieve the right voice—or if you prefer, tone, style, and technique.

Using Literature to Teach Informational Voice

There is NO better way to teach voice in informational or persuasive writing than through literature. To teach writing in which voice is deliberately suppressed (so that the message is dominant and free of distractions), we need to share judicial, medical, scientific, statistical or technical documents.

When teaching informational writing directed at a general audience (as opposed to specialists), our choices have to hit the right note of formality—respectful and reserved—without being dry, dull, or dispassionate.  In their own writing, we want students to—

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Otherwise, what on earth is the point? Here are some suggested titles we think you’ll find useful in helping students hit the right informational note.


Hitting the Right Note (3 of Vicki’s Favorites)

1. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. 2000. New York: Broadway Books. Nonfiction history, travel, and memoir—with significant infusion of science and geography. Written for adults, but selected passages are appropriate for sharing with all ages.


I chose Bryson’s book for several reasons—it’s a book I loved enough to read more than once (and then I purchased the CD so I could hear Bill read it, too); I’ve carried it with me to workshops for 12 years and my passionate reviews have, I’m confident, sold hundreds of copies to teachers at all levels; this is a book that defies narrow labeling, brilliantly combining numerous sub-genres; and finally, the book is thoroughly researched, impeccably meeting and surpassing every research-related standard of the Common Core.

Read the whole book on your own first, but keep a pencil (or yellow highlighter) in hand because you’ll find many passages to mark for rereading—or to share with students. You won’t want to share everything (this is a book for adults), but look for carefully chosen details about topics we might not explore on our own. The language is lively (precise, sometimes sharply comic) but never simplistic. Bryson can go from witty or descriptive to technical in the blink of an eye. What’s especially remarkable about this book is that we learn something new on virtually every page—and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of good informational writing? Here’s a passage that brims with energy, while definitely treating us to more than just a list of facts. Notice how the details combine to make a point:

Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science (page 7).


2. Oh, Rats! The Story of Rats and People by Albert Marrin. 2006. New York: Dutton Children’s Books. Nonfiction history and zoology. Written for upper elementary through middle school, but selected passages may be shared with students of all ages.


Often, I’ll introduce this book to teachers by calling it “a research paper so good it got published.” I say this not only because it’s true (Marrin’s research is incredible in all of his books), but also because I hope to erase the line between student writing and literature. How different might our instruction (or indeed our standards) be if that line did not exist?

His introduction, called “The Rat and I,” tells the story of Marrin’s first encounter with a rat (at age 7)—and the terror that sent him racing over wet cement and into his father’s waiting arms. His calm father advised learning about rats to dispel his fear—and so began years of research that led to a book. Your students may enjoy writing similar introductions that show why they chose their particular topics.

Marrin’s presentation is straightforward and factual, but it’s continually enlivened by his knack for tracking down details we love hearing about. One of my tests for the efficacy of any informational piece is how much I can recall days—or even weeks—after reading. Here is one passage I’ll think of for some time to come:

A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch. An adult rat’s jaws are hundreds of times more powerful than a person’s. Large muscles allow it to bite down with a force of 7,000 pounds per square inch, about the same force as a crocodile’s jaws (page 10).

You can bet money that I wouldn’t have researched rats on my own. Upon discovering Marrin’s book, I learned how much I’d been missing.


3. What’s Eating You? Parasites—The Inside Story by Nicola Davies. 2007. Somerville: Candlewick Press. Nonfiction zoology. All ages—simple enough for upper elementary, but appealing even to adults, thanks in part to Neal Layton’s zany illustrations.


Nicola Davies’ books are irresistible because (1) she tells us things we didn’t know before, and (2) she explains things so clearly that readers feel like experts. And if you were looking for a recipe for informational voice, those two points would give it to you—almost. Add a dash of unabridged enthusiasm because Davies has an “Imagine that!” tone that is highly infectious. You can probably think of informational texts you would not dream of reading aloud; with this one, you won’t be able to wait.

Davies’ language is so stunningly clear and straightforward that it’s easy to underestimate just how much information she is sharing. Her talent for making the complex simple gives all readers—even the less skilled—immediate access to information, as in this passage about tapeworms:

Tapeworms can live in your intestine and grow to 60 feet long! Their bodies are shaped like a tape measure and are made of hundreds of little flattened segments. Instead of a head, they have a thing called a scolex, a knob with a series of hooks and suckers on it that holds on to the inside of the intestine. They don’t have eyes because there’s no light to see with inside an intestine, and they don’t have legs because they don’t go anywhere (page 27).

Creates quite a picture, doesn’t it? Think you’ll remember it tomorrow? Well, there you go.

Lessons Learned

From Davies, Marrin, and Bryson we learn these lessons about achieving informational voice:

  • Choose a topic you love
  • Do your research
  • Don’t be afraid to get excited over a special detail
  • Teach the reader something new
  • Don’t tell everything—tell what’s unforgettable
  • Don’t just list facts—make a point
  • Write clearly enough to reach even beginning readers
  • Create pictures in readers’ minds


Hitting the Right Note (3 of Jeff’s Favorites) 

1.  The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Art by Deborah Dancy. 2008. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong. Nonfiction, true autobiographical narrative, with accompanying poems. Appropriate for grade 6 to adult audiences.


Many of you may be familiar with Marilyn Nelson’s writing, in particular her award winning book, Carver: A life in Poems, a collection of poetry and photographs focused on the life of George Washington Carver. In The Freedom Business, Marilyn again uses original poetry, to add an extra layer of texture, richness, and insight to the life and voice of her subject, Venture Smith. A portion of his 1798, self-written life narrative, is included in this volume. It provides both the original voice and inspiration to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry, which appears side-by-side with the excerpts from Mr. Smith’s narrative. The watercolor and ink washes/collages of Deborah Dancy are not merely adornments to each page. The art provides a sepia-toned landscape to Venture’s story and are evocative of the symbols and themes of his life—slavery, chains, relentless work, disappointment, patience, and even joy.

Mr. Smith, born Prince Broteer Furro in Guinea around 1729, was taken from his home country by slave traders when he was only six years old. His narrative begins in Africa, highlighting early moments of his life with family, continues on his voyage across the Atlantic to Rhode Island where he is bought and sold several times, and ends with him a free man, with land and property. The voice of Venture’s narrative, written in 18th century language, seems almost passive and stoic as he describes the realities of his life as a slave, yet every moment rings with authenticity. In this passage, Venture has a run-in with his master’s son.

For my master having set me off my business to perform that day and then left me to perform it, his son came up to me in the course of the day, big with authority, and  commanded me very arrogantly to quit my present business and go directly about what he should order me…He then broke out into a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head therewith; but I as soon got another and defended myself with it, or otherwise be might have murdered me in his outrage. (page 34)

Marilyn Nelson’s poem, Two Masters (ca 1750), written as Venture in the first person, invites readers into this same moment and provides further insight into Venture the slave and 18th century man, and his conflict with his master’s son.

…One morning, Master had given me a task and gone

     away for the day. Swaggering with confidence,

     his peach-cheeked son gave me a contrary order.

     I told him I’d promised to complete a job for my master.

     I had no right to refuse his enterprise

     he yelled, in his eyes no spark of charity.


     He snatched a pitchfork. I weighed fight against faith

     for one moment, then snatched the other one.

     We faced off like devils going about their business,

     he big with arrogance, claiming authority… (page 37)


Venture’s own narrative voice and the voice of Venture that comes alive through Nelson’s poetry, blend together beautifully, bringing to readers a greater understanding and important historical perspective. Primary source material coupled with poetry—very exciting! Teachers may see this as a model for an alternative to the traditional history report. And this may be just the ticket (as Vicki outlined above) to help students:

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Interested, engaged, passionate writers and readers—imagine that!


2. Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City by Richard Platt. 2009. Illustrated by Manuela Cappon. New York: Kingfisher. Nonfiction history, reference. Grades 4-adult.


I’m a big fan of Richard Platt’s work, especially Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Roman Diary: The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini: Captured and Sold as a Slave in Rome—AD 107, and Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter. These three are excellent examples of a writer using “the power of extensive research coupled with the capability to select the most intriguing details availableto create voices that inspire readers to keep reading.” Simply? Platt’s voice invites you in and keeps you reading.

In Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City, Richard Platt gives readers an informational and visual trip across time, tracing London’s history from Neolithic times to the present as the city gears itself for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The book is really an ultra-detailed timeline, following the development of one geographic location, one city—London, England—its people, culture, architecture, and government—as it grew and changed over thousands of years. Richard Platt and illustrator Manuela Cappon have filled this book with fascinating text, rich detailed artwork with captions/labels, a valuable glossary, and helpful index. At first glance this book may appear to be the kind that readers will experience by browsing—it’s so full of information—but all you have to do is stop and read the text on one page, and you will be convinced to carefully read all that each page has to offer. Remember Vicki’s list of all the elements of writing that contribute to voice? Here are four that directly apply to this book:

  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

Each page begins with an inviting lead sentence, and closes out with the kind of wrap-up that brings readers right back to the writer’s focus. Here are a couple examples of leads and wrap-ups:

The Great Fire, A.D. 1666 (page 27)

First sentence:

Hot and crackling, yellow tongues of flame lick from the windows of a bakery on Pudding Lane.

Last sentence:

But even before the ashes are cold, London’s leaders are planning a new city.

Neolithic Camp, 3500 B.C. (page 6)

First sentence:

On a low, muddy bank in the middle of the shallow, winding River Thames, stealthy hunters hurl stone-tipped spears at a group of plump geese.

Last sentence:

Some will settle here for good, marking the beginning of the place we now call “London.”

In between these openings and closings are, of course, sentences and paragraphs that expand on the important information relative to the specific time period. (This book is not only a great resource for leads and wrap-ups, it abounds with terrific examples of transition sentences that bridge each paragraph.) Completing each page are the detailed illustrations of the location from a bird’s-eye view, allowing readers to follow the development of London from camp to bustling modern city. These captioned illustrations/diagrams/insets/cross-sections are as important as the text in creating and maintaining the writer’s voice. Each works in concert with the other to both intrigue and inform readers.

One other aspect of this book should not be overlooked—it is a great example of the presentation part of the trait of Conventions and Presentation. The inclusion of timelines, a glossary, and the blend of art and text, will offer students a model of what can be done beyond the encyclopedic text that students are often encouraged to produce in wooden, fill-in-the-blank science and social science “research reports.”


 3.  Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey by Gary Golio. Paintings by Rudy Gutierrez. 2012. Boston: Clarion Books. Non-fiction/biography, picture book. Grades 4—adult.


If you are a Sixtraitgurus regular, you may recall (Check the archives—April 2012) that I wrote about Gary Golio’s amazing book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow; A Story of the young Jimi Hendrix.  Like Jimi Hendrix was to rock music and the electric guitar, John Coltrane was to jazz and the tenor saxophone. Each pushed their instruments and genres to the extreme, before shattering musical boundaries and inspiring musicians with their vision and particular genius. And also like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane’s life ended prematurely, and most likely from his drug and alcohol abuse as a younger man.

Author Golio never shies away from this aspect of Coltrane’s life but places it in the proper context of the special lure of drugs to musicians looking to ease the pressures of performing, touring, and searching for their creative muse in an ever changing, cut-throat business. Gary Golio is not only an author of acclaimed books, he is a social worker and licensed therapist who counsels young people on drug/alcohol addiction issues. As a reader, his sensitivity to the world of addiction is apparent in the respectful voice he finds for telling the stories of his subjects.

As Vicki framed it earlier, Gary hits the right note of formality with his book about John Coltrane. The book is a biography, homage, and cautionary tale wrapped up in one. He honors his subject by telling the truth, while clearly caring about John Coltrane and his music.

Moving back to Mama’s house in Philadelphia, John saw his world come to a sudden stop. His body was sick, and his pockets were empty.

     Now he had to choose, between the dead end of drugs or a life rich with music.

     Waking one morning, John remember his grandfather’s words—the promise of Spirit, and of healing. He asked Mama and Naima for help.

     With nothing to eat and only water to drink, he stayed alone in his room, resting and praying, as the drugs slowly left his body. It was painful, but John felt that he was being cleansed—made new again.

     When he came out, a few days later, he was free. (Page 25)


As I suggested in my review of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, without an accompanying CD of John Coltrane’s music, how will the uninitiated reader capture a sense of John Coltrane’s pioneering jazz sound? And again, my answer brings readers back to the art that flows across each page. Rudy Gutierrez’s inspired, spirit-filled art—acrylic, ink, pencil, mixed media—provides the right note of lightness or darkness appropriate to each moment in Coltrane’s life. The images are bold, subdued, geometric then organic, reflecting the improvisational spirit of bebop and the blend of sounds and styles that filled Coltrane’s head and heart. They are as essential to the reader’s experience as the author’s voice, created through well-researched, careful selection of details and his passion for his topic.

(Gary does highlight a couple of John Coltrane’s important recordings—Giant Steps and A Love Supreme. Even if you say you are not a jazz lover, finding and listening to even a portion of both will be the last bricks in building your understanding and appreciation for John Coltrane. The voice of John Coltrane as created by Gary Golio in Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey and the voice of Coltrane’s saxophone—the perfect combo!)

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned from authors Smith/Nelson, Platt, and Golio about achieving informational voice are similar to the lessons Vicki highlighted from the authors she selected, but I will add just a couple more (with an important tip of the cap to Mary Pipher, who described voice in Writing to Change the World as “This offering of the library of self”):

  • Do your research and open wide the “library of self”
  • Don’t be afraid to go beyond the limits of the traditional “report”
  • Teach yourself something new, then teach it to your reader
  • Voice can be enhanced by exciting, appropriate Presentation


A Closing Thought: What motivates students to write?

In Writers: Teachers and Children at Work (1986, 244), Donald Graves offers this reflective comment:

Schools forget the source of power in children’s writing. The school experience can cut down egos or remove voice from the writing, and the person from the print, until there is no driving force left in the selection. We then hear the familiar questions, “How can we motivate them into writing? How can we get them to write?”

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Word Choice, taking a close look at literature you can use to teach use of strong verbs, clear language, descriptive detail, and sensory language—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


First, the book: The Write Direction

A few years ago, I was honored to write the Foreword for a book I believe in deeply, called The Write Direction: A New Teacher’s Practical Guide to Teaching Writing and Its Application to the Workplace. This unique book, written by two veteran teachers—my friend and colleague Fred Wolff and respected educational consultant Lynna Garber Kalna—shows teachers how to build the bridge from classroom writing instruction to the workplace.

As this ground breaking book helps us understand, traditional instruction often overlooks the kinds of writing many of our students will be required to do from their first day on a job: electronic data analysis, economic forecasts, evaluations of personnel or products, instructional manuals, product reviews, guidelines, proposals, public relations documents—and much more. In addition, they’ll need the flexibility to work collaboratively at times—and independently at other times. Many will do their own document design—and editing.

The Write Direction complements the CCSS emphasis on collaborative writing, research, proper and careful use of conventions, document publication and distribution, and informational writing, while showing teachers, step by step, how to create the skills students need to meet these Common Core and workplace requirements. Highly recommended.

NEW from Fred and Lynna: An exciting CCSS workshop!

Now Fred and Lynna have teamed up to create an exciting new workshop that takes teachers inside the Common Core, showing them how to interpret and apply standards in practical ways within their own classrooms. Following is their description:

Administrators and teachers at ALL grade levels play a pivotal role in helping students meet the Common Core Standards, which include the writing skills required of students in college and/or a career. Focusing on the new Common Core writing components that administrators and teachers must integrate into their curriculum and instruction, this workshop explores the numerous, challenging writing skills students must master to be successful no matter what path they follow. The workshop addresses writing in ALL content areas—always with an eye on college and career readiness. We’d love a chance to bring this workshop right to your school or district. For more information, contact Fred Wolff at f.wolff@comcast.net

To order Fred and Lynna’s book, The Write Direction, go to www.pearsonhighered.com, or check Amazon online.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Think VOICE is the one trait ignored by the Common Core? You might be surprised. Check our upcoming post. And remember to contact us for the very BEST in professional development training that combines standards, traits, process, workshop, and literature, all in one package: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Visit often—and bring friends. And don’t forget . . . Give every child a voice.

Avoiding Formula–While Meeting Common Core Standards

First Thoughts . . .

If you’re like most educators these days, you’re probably receiving information on the Common Core (www.commoncore.org) almost daily. And you may find yourself asking, “Do I know how to teach writing in a way that will help my students meet Common Core standards?” In fact, you may be more prepared than you think. Don’t let anxiety over tests and standards overwhelm you. Trust your own best instincts as a teacher—and above all, don’t give in to formulaic approaches that promise quick success.

Remember, much of what is in the Common Core (use of technology aside) is not all that new. Good writing teachers have been focusing on main ideas and details, strong research, well-documented evidence, easy-to-follow organizational structure, and effective word choice for decades. And second, thanks to people like Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Peter Elbow, Tom Newkirk, Georgia Heard, Lucy Calkins, Jeff Anderson, and many others, we know more about the teaching of writing than ever before. The notion that we have to start from scratch every few years is a myth. But here’s something that’s not a myth—and it lurks over our heads once again right now: all shortcuts weaken (and potentially undermine) any approach to writing instruction. Shortcuts lead to formula—and formulaic writing fosters reductive thinking.

Shortcutting Writing Process  

No approach to writing instruction is immune to the devastating effects of shortcuts and formula—including writing process. Perhaps you weren’t even teaching yet in the early 1980s when Donald Graves (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1983; A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994) first shared his groundbreaking research on writing as a process (or set of processes). This gentle man, with his insatiable curiosity and extraordinarily keen eye for observing writers at work, spent many hundreds of hours watching writers, talking with them, and interpreting their actions and responses to his questions. Through his results, he helped us see that writing is more than moving a pencil over paper, that it takes thought and reflection, and that such thought and reflection occur in a continuous cycle as a writer reflects, plans, drafts, revises . . . then plans and drafts some more, and revises yet more deeply. Imagine his dismay when his vision of writing-as-thinking was collapsed by some (Let’s simplify this!) into planning on Monday, drafting on Tuesday, revising on Wednesday, publishing on Thursday. What happened to reflection? To going back? To tapping imagination, experience, and memory, talking with a trusted friend, then re-visioning? What happened to thinking?

Shortcutting Writing Traits

In the mid 1980s and 1990s, the six traits of writing came on the scene, and caused quite a stir. The idea behind the traits was that if we helped students understand the qualities that make writing work, they could apply that understanding to their own writing and revision. The only way to do this is by teaching the concepts behind strong ideas, organization, voice, and so on. Of course, this takes a long time. Students need to read, rank, and discuss samples of writing—lots of them, all styles, all genres. They need to read voraciously from the finest literature they can get their hands on, asking which voices move us, which writers use words effectively, why some pieces are easier and more fun to read aloud, why details matter or how writers make their thinking clear on paper. They need to design their own rubrics and checklists, out of their own thinking. But—who has time for all this reading and analyzing and discussing? Enter the shortcut: pass out rubrics and have students memorize them. I was horrified when I heard some people were doing this because it’s a recipe for disaster. Such shortcutting caused some people to take a rather dim view of the traits—and who can blame them? What an opportunity lost. The traits were never about rubrics. But fear of the test coupled with an insatiable craving for quick results (The test is coming! Quick! Grab your rubric!) undermined teachers’ faith in a sound instructional method that invites students to figure out for themselves what makes writing successful, then use what they learn to become skilled, independent revisers.

So—More Shortcuts or a Serious Vision?

Now we have the Common Core Standards of Writing (www.commoncore.org) And once again, we are poised at a crossroads, with a chance to do better—but with many still clamoring for shortcuts: Hurry—give me six ways to teach informational writing. What are the three secrets to good argument? When will we learn? There are no good shortcuts. The Common Core gives us something to aim for. But we still have to figure out how to get there. The secrets to good writing instruction, whether based on process, workshop, traits, standards, or some combination of these, remain these—

  • Time. Time for reflection, for identifying topics, for extended writing, revising, and document designing, for talking with other writers, and even starting over when that’s appropriate. Time to write in all areas of the curriculum, including math, physical science, social science, art, music, or any elements that curriculum comprises.
  • Choice. A chance to choose personally important topics and coaching in how to do so. An opportunity to reach across genres, to be reporters and poets, story tellers and advocates.
  • Modeling. Multiple opportunities to see others (especially the instructor) come up with a topic, write and revise, and share secrets to solving writers’ problems (how to get started, how to find information, how to manage too many details, how to make sentences sing, how to clarify fuzzy writing, etc.)
  • Reading. Access to great literature and other writing from every genre. Opportunities to learn from the best writers of our time—and the past. A chance to read aloud, hear others read aloud, identify and discuss favorite passages, and talk about how professional writers draft leads we can’t resist or conclusions we can’t forget, create vivid images, clarify information, find words that make movies in our minds, craft sentences that flow like lyrics, use conventions creatively to bring out meaning and voice, condense mountains of research into a meaningful message, generate language that thrills us or reshapes our thinking—and more.
  • Quality feedback. A chance to share writing within a community of other writers who share common goals and know how to offer comments that are both supportive and useful. Opportunities for conversations about writing, whether through comments or conferences. Timely, sensitive responses from instructors—responses that encourage next steps, and that happen while the writing still “lives” in the writer’s head, and while there is still time for further planning and revising (i.e., before any final grade or score is handed out). And above all, genuine respect for and encouragement of self-assessment.

Formula In = Formula Out

In Oregon, home of the traits, you might think that writing is under control and students are simply tearing through writing assessments, accumulating high scores like red squirrels stocking up pine cones. Unfortunately, this has not been the case of late. A friend shared the following article with me, and I urge you to read it:


As you do, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, the article offers several good suggestions, among them that (1) we need to spend more time on writing instruction, (2) future assessments will be more demanding because (partly as a result of the Common Core) students will need to do a better job of demonstrating thinking skills, and (3) it’s vital for our students to write across the curriculum, not only because it stretches their exposure to informational writing, but also because it’s literally the only way they get to write enough to become good at it.

Second, the article presents a sample student essay on voting rights. (You need to scroll down quite a long way to come to it.) Please take time to read and assess it. You might use a rubric, or grade it, or simply write a comment—whatever form of assessment you prefer. Write down your own response before you see how it was scored. I assessed it based on the Teacher Writing Guide from my new book, Creating Writers, 6/e (scheduled for release in October). I’m guessing that Writing Guide is different from the rubric used here—but in any case, you’ll notice that the essay (incredibly) received scores of 4 across all traits. I would have scored it differently, particularly on Ideas and Organization, the two traits most emphasized in the CCSS.

The Ideas are said to be “clear and focused.” Do you agree? I would find this a hard assessment to defend.  The writer suggests that teenagers should not vote because (1) they don’t pay attention to politics, (2) they wouldn’t make wise voting decisions, and (3) they don’t have enough education to understand the voting process (though what this actually means is unclear). Let me suggest that these are not really three separate reasons, but three ways of getting at the same issue: teenagers aren’t sufficiently informed to vote. These claims are not backed by evidence (a major requirement of the Common Core), nor are they developed. Keep in mind that a score of 4 essentially says, “You’re on the right track here.” Is that the message you would wish to give this writer? Based on the writing guide from my book, I would place this essay somewhere between a 2 and 3 on Ideas. It is light on content, repetitious, and leaves many readers’ questions unanswered.

But here’s the trait that concerns me most: Organization. This trait also received a score of 4, essentially because the introductory paragraph contains a “thesis” and “three supporting details.” It’s a masterpiece of formula—though I suspect this student is doing precisely what she was taught to do. The thesis states that the law restricting the voting age is “in place for a good reason.” This is surely not a forceful thesis—nor even a very clear one. The so-called “supporting details” are the writer’s opinions, unsubstantiated and undeveloped. So, the formulaic pieces are all in place: thesis + the magic three. (For some reason, we’re infatuated with the number three.) Each of these “supporting details” is repeated in one of the following paragraphs—then (unbelievably) repeated again in the closing paragraph. This repetition—which wouldn’t be tolerated by any editor worth her salt—is  apparently considered an organizational strength. Because it’s so obsessively predictable, formulaic writing is almost unbearably tedious to read, but it does simplify scoring. In fact, formula is specifically designed to help assessors. But it has little to do with thinking—or real writing. When we encourage it, we do our students a grave disservice. Good organization, by contrast, begins with a dynamite lead that pulls us right into a discussion, continues with details introduced strategically, systematically to build our understanding, and closes with comments that show why this information matters. A genuine effort to enlighten readers is missing from this essay—which is a long way from the demands of the Common Core. But here’s the really disturbing part: This probably isn’t at all representative of what this writer can do. In fact, I’d bet the ranch on it. More on this in a moment . . .

The essay also receives a 4 in Voice, which says much more about the assessor than about the writer. Can you spot any read-aloud moments? That’s one of my tests for voice. This writer seems bored to tears by this topic. In fact, I sense she was relieved when she was finished. The voice is described as “appropriate,” but that’s a tricky word. Sometimes, I think by appropriate, we mean appropriately quiet, appropriately reserved. And probably we don’t want a J.D. Salinger or Jerry Seinfeld kind of voice (though comic relief can be welcome on a topic like voting). What I’m listening for is honesty mingled with a sense of conviction: an “I mean what I say” kind of voice. I don’t hear that.

 The 4 in Word Choice is, I think, the only score with which I agree. However, it troubles me that the words are described as “accurate and specific enough.” For what? For purposes of an academic essay? When are we going to stop treating academic and on-demand writing as some sort of special case? As if it doesn’t need to be very good because after all, who will see it? or publish it? We should want our students to write all the time as if someone, out of the blue, might pick up that writing and say, “Oh, my. I read your essay and it moved me to tears.” Or rage—or utopic joy. Or perhaps this: “Your essay on voting really got at the heart of why teenagers don’t get more involved in politics—and you helped me see why some voters aren’t ready to make good choices.” At the same time, this writer uses language with reasonable ease, and has no trouble making herself understood on a general level. And that’s the problem in a nutshell: general level. We never get inside her head—and don’t look now, but getting inside the writer’s head is one of the main reasons we read.

I don’t agree with the scores for Fluency or Conventions, either. I would actually score both traits higher. The Fluency is easily a 5—yes, there’s that one awkward sentence, but in the overall scheme of things, that’s minor. This is very readable writing, which is one reason this writer seems to say more than she actually does (This same strategy works for public figures all the time). The Conventions need a little attention, yes—but the flaws are small and easily remedied (I’m guessing this is a pretty good editor who was rushed to finish). I’d give that trait a 5, too.

Our Message to the Writer

Notice that the original scores (reported in the article) create a kind of flatline view of this essay; they’re all identical, which defeats the purpose of analytical scoring. A barrage of 4s doesn’t say anything more than “Overall, your writing actually kind of works at times.” Be still my heart. Such lackluster assessment will (I predict) have no impact whatsoever on this student’s future writing. If we vary the scores (and of course, accompany them with some comments), we offer more useful feedback. The message to this writer should be—“You write very fluently, your writing is easy to read, and your conventions are strong. You have a good ear for language, and chose some words—priority, apathy, investigated—that were not only well suited to your topic, but also precise. Three things could be stronger: content (What’s your message?), organization (This was a bit repetitive), and voice (I don’t hear YOU).” Given a well-written writing guide, thoughtful scoring will convey this basic message.

But now let’s suppose that we had the luxury of conversation with this writer (I know—this isn’t possible in on-demand writing, but let’s pretend for purposes of practice, because in the classroom, we can do this). Here’s what I’d like to say that I can’t say with scores alone: “Your writing is so readable that I breezed right through it. Except for one little hiccup (can you spot it?), your sentences are very smooth. Given how little time you had for editing, I felt you were in control of the conventions—and I’m betting you could finish editing this in about two minutes flat. Am I right? However, I didn’t detect any passion for this topic. I didn’t feel you were deeply invested—so let’s talk about that . . .  Also, I’d like to see you explore the voting issue more deeply—and then share what you really think, because I sense you have a lot more to say. You pointed out that teenagers are apathetic about voting. That caught my attention—and I really wanted to hear more. Why do you think that’s true? Is there any way to change it? Are any voting issues important to teenagers? And aren’t older voters sometimes apathetic too? You also say that if they were more informed, they could make better choices. That sounds right—but what do you mean exactly? What’s your idea of an informed person? One who watches TV news—or is there more to it? You also suggest that once teenagers are educated, they will vote more wisely. Convince me. Should schools educate people to vote? Or do voters wind up educating themselves?” You might ask very different questions—but you get the idea. We can’t just toss prompts to students and think they’ll take off. We need to engage them in conversation until they can do this for themselves, in their own heads—even in the ridiculously short time allowed for on-demand writing. Then we need to be extremely interested in what they have to say—something that’s much easier to achieve if we allow them to have their own topics because then, of course, they might also be more interested in what they have to say.

Moving Closer to the Common Core

Writing isn’t a mechanical act, and teaching a barrage of mechanical strategies (Mention all three of your supporting details in the first paragraph) won’t help anyone write better—though it can, sadly enough, affect test scores (for now). Shortcuts and formulas will never—not ever—make you a strong swimmer; but they can keep you treading water. Somehow, we don’t seem to see the irony in this. Our time for getting by with shortcuts may be coming to an end, though, for they won’t take us one centimeter closer to meeting the very real, very high demands of the Common Core. To do that, we have to help students think. One way to encourage thinking is to let students talk before they write—even in on-demand writing. This isn’t cheating; it’s exploration. The only way to cheat in writing is to have someone else do it for you (Truth be told, when we hand students a formula, we come very close to doing just that).

 The good friend who sent me this article suggested that if students had more time for research (in on-demand situations), their writing would be stronger, and this would make our assessment more fair. Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Too often we impose prompts on students (e.g., we give them 50-word bios of famous people they may never have heard of and ask for insightful commentary on how those people have  influenced civilization) that simply cannot be addressed reasonably and creatively in a 30-minute essay with no research or preparation. Understandably, they struggle. Then, we arrogantly conclude from their responses that they cannot write well, when we should conclude that prompts demanding research are better handled in the classroom.

 Even an uninspiring prompt won’t keep a good writer down for good, though. The student writing on voting raises some intriguing issues about apathy and education. She simply has not spent enough time poking around in her own thoughts to give us much depth or insight—yet. She has more to say, however, even without research. Just a little between-the-lines analysis reveals this. This is a capable writer, and we’re letting her slip through the cracks by patting her on the head with 4s, pretending we perceive meaning where there is none, pretending we hear her voice when it isn’t there, pretending that because we can follow a formula we handed her, she is guiding us through a discussion. Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s do a better job of recognizing what she does well—and pushing her to think harder, deeper, and longer about her topic. We might love reading the result.

Tips for further research—

      1.    To hear teacher Adam Babcock offer innovative comments on evading formula and prompting thinking among our young writers, check out the following video—


      2.      For ideas on providing excellent, meaningful feedback to students, see—

           “7 Keys to Effective Feedback” by Grant Wiggins. Educational Leadership, September 2012 (Vol 70, #1, pp. 11-16).

       3.      For further thoughts on making feedback effective, check out Kim Marshall’s wonderful Marshall Memo (If you don’t already subscribe,  check it out online—this very useful summary of current educational articles is a must for busy teachers and other educators); in particular, see MarshMemo451, from September 10 and MarshMemo 452 from September 18, 2012. Look online under—

marshallmemo.com  (and be sure to get your complimentary issue)

       4.      To explore strategies and resources useful in teaching even very young students to think philosophically, see—

                  Little Big Minds by Marietta McCarty. 2006. Tarcher. (Available on Amazon)

       5.      To see what kinds of instructional shifts are demanded by the Common Core, see—


Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Organization, taking a close look at literature you can use to teach leads, transitions, conclusions, and the effective flow of ideas—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.