Tag Archive: informational writing


Neighborhood Sharks. 2014. Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy. New York: Roaring Brooks Press. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book/chapter book

Ages: Aimed at fourth through eighth grades, though adults will also enjoy it

Awards: The Robert F. Sibert Award for most distinguished informational book for children; John Burroughs Riverby Award for Young Readers

Welcome Back, Gurus followers!

We’re opening the new school year by reviewing one of the best nonfiction picture books of 2014—Neighborhood Sharks. We highly recommend this multi-award winner, and think you and your students will applaud Katherine Roy’s unforgettable peek into the daily life of the great white.

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Summary

Great white sharks are arguably the most feared predators of the ocean. But how much do we really know about them? Not enough. In this visually stunning account, author/illustrator Katherine Roy takes us to the coastal waters off the Farallon Islands, where marine biologists tag, track—and yes, even name—great whites in an effort to learn more about their migrations, hunting behaviors, and life spans. Graphic, realistic paintings depict sharks stalking and killing their preferred prey, pinnipeds. Highly detailed text and diagrams help us understand precisely how the anatomy of the shark makes it such a successful predator—and why its prey so rarely escapes. The book is highly focused, zeroing in on the ongoing spectacle of shark versus seal. While the text doesn’t reveal everything about the great white, it is an eye opening, dramatic depiction of how this giant fish hunts.

Neighborhood Sharks is well-researched and extremely informative about its targeted subject. Scientific text is effectively blended with riveting narrative about shark-seal encounters, and this back and forth makes the book both engaging and instructive. It offers an outstanding example of how essentially informational text can weave in just the right amount of narrative to bring factual information to life. Roy’s lavish paintings put us right at the heart of the blood pumping action.

Note: This book is an excellent example of an emerging genre, picture books aimed at older readers.

 

In the Classroom

 1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. You will notice that the text includes a number of biological terms—e.g., carcharodon carcharias, the great white’s scientific name. You may wish to check on pronunciations of these terms before sharing the book or portions of it aloud. Or ask students (assuming they have access to a computer) to look up the pronunciations and share them with the class. A word of caution: The book contains several graphic representations of sharks killing seals. They are paintings, not photographs, but very young readers may still find them disturbing. We recommend using discretion when considering sharing the book with primary students.

2. Background. How many of your students have seen the Farallon Islands—or know where they are? Find them on a map so that students can picture the setting for the book. Have any of your students seen a great white shark—in an aquarium or even in the ocean? How many have seen them in videos? What do your students know currently about great whites? Consider making a two-part list: beliefs about great whites and known facts about great whites. Talk about the difference between what we know and what we believe we know. What are our sources for each kind of “knowledge”?

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students find great whites interesting? Based on their response, did Katherine Roy choose a good subject for her book? How many of your students find great whites terrifying? This is a common response among the American public. Take a few minutes to discuss where this fear comes from. To what extent is it encouraged (or refuted) by books, films, and the news media? Is the fear justified? (Consider having students write a short opinion paragraph on this topic.)

 4. Presenting the Text. The engaging nature of Neighborhood Sharks makes it a standout choice for sharing aloud. And you can enhance students’ listening experience significantly by sharing illustrations on a document projector. You will also find this kind of visual sharing invaluable when referring to the author’s anatomical charts. The book runs about 40 pages, but the spreads are highly varied. Some pages contain only a line or two of text, while others run several hundred words. Since the book is divided into chapters, that’s a simple way to break up the oral reading, sharing up to two or three chapters per session. You will also find that the text is content rich, meaning that almost every line provides new information of some kind. From an instructional standpoint, asking students to absorb all information in one reading may be a challenge.

 5. The Lead—and a Genre Shift. We often think of a lead as the opening line or the first two or three lines of any piece. How long is the lead in Roy’s book? Where does it end? As the writer shifts from the lead to the main text, what changes in genre do you notice? (Note to the teacher: The lead in this book is a short narrative featuring a chase scene in which one shark pursues one seal. The narrative is fast moving, told largely through illustrations. About ten pages in, the writing suddenly shifts to informational as the writer begins to offer details about the Farallon Islands, the elephant seals, and the great whites. It is important for students to recognize this shift in genre because the author is writing for different purposes—first to get us hooked on the topic, and second to provide the background information we need to appreciate the shark’s hunting skills.)

 6. Central Topic/Theme. Many books have been written about sharks and about the great whites in particular. What is the main idea of this book? Is the author trying to tell us a little bit about many aspects of a shark’s life—or a lot about one particular aspect? Is this an effective approach? Why?

 7. Organizational Structure. The organization of any piece of writing is directly linked to the scope of the topic. How did Roy’s decision to narrow her topic influence the organizational structure of the book? (In other words, how different would the organization look if Roy had set out to tell us everything she knew about sharks?) To help students answer this question, use the document projector to skim through the chapter titles one by one, asking as you go, “What main point does the writer make in this particular chapter—and how does it relate to the central theme (sharks as hunters) of the book?” Does the author do a good job of making sure every single chapter contributes something to her main point?

8. Details. As noted earlier, Roy’s book might be described as “information dense,” meaning that as readers, we are continually learning something new. As you go through the book, make a list of details they consider either new or particularly interesting. When you come to the end of the book, ask “How much did we learn?” Is our opportunity to learn new information one of the criteria for good informational writing?

9. Audience. We have identified this book as most appropriate for students in grades four through eight—while acknowledging that older readers may well find it interesting as well. Do your students agree with this assessment? What sorts of readers, in their opinion, would probably enjoy this book most? Are there readers for whom it would be less appropriate? Why?

10. Graphics. In the chapters titled “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” and “Farallon Soup” Roy uses graphics to carry part of the message. Show these on a document projector, and discuss what they add to a reader’s understanding of information presented in the text. When is it particularly important to use graphics? Notice in particular the sketch of a shark in the chapter titled “The Perfect Body.” Roy tells us that the shark’s pectoral fins provide lift like the wings of a jet. What other similarities between sharks and jets do your students notice, and why are they important?

11. Transitions. We often think of transitions as single words or expressions: however, nevertheless, in the meantime, the next day, and so on. Remind students how transitions link ideas or take us from one thought or event to another. Then, take a look at the final lines in the chapters titled “Hot Lunch,” “The Perfect Body,” “Hot Head,” “High-Definition Vision,” and “Endless Teeth.” Do those final lines serve a transitional purpose? In what sense? What is their impact on the reader?

 12. Voice. How would your students describe the voice or tone of this book? Is it sophisticated, academic, formal, chatty, conversational, or–? Make a list of words they would use to describe what they hear. Then, identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to the tone of the book? Is it language, sentence length—or something else? Finally, is the tone right for this type of book and subject matter? How do they know?

13. Unanswered Questions, Research, and Informational Writing. Clearly Roy’s book doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about great whites—though we do learn a lot about their hunting behaviors. Make a list of questions readers still have at the end of this book. Then ask each student to choose one question and do some research that helps answer that question. They can do several things with this research: (1) Make an in-class display of most startling findings; (2) create a wiki about sharks to which all students contribute; (3) share findings orally in small groups and discuss which findings are most surprising or fascinating; (4) use findings as a basis for writing short informational pieces that together could form a book on sharks.

14. The Conclusion. Endings have a sound and feeling all their own. Just as we can tell when a film is about to end, we can sense when a book is drawing to a close. Where do your students think the ending for this book starts? (Note to the teacher: We consider the final three pages to be the ending. Do your students agree?) Good endings do many things—for example, leave us with something to think about, raise new questions, or create a lasting impression. What effect do your students think the ending of this book has on the reader?

15. Argument Writing. This book raises some controversial issues that could form a good basis for a written argument. First, in the chapter titled “Farallon Soup,” author Katherine Roy tells us that sharks are apex predators, who help maintain a healthy ecosystem by ridding the ocean of weaker animals and thereby allowing the healthier ones to pass on their genes to new generations. Yet some people might argue that predators such as the great white can pose significant danger to humans and some marine life. Which side offers the stronger argument? Should sharks ever be hunted—or should they be protected because of the benefits they offer to overall ocean health? Ask students to do some further research on this topic, and present a one- or two-page argument defending the side they feel is stronger. Second, in the final pages of the book, the author raises an important question: Can sharks survive another 200,000 years of human habitation on the earth? What do your students think? While we often think of great whites as threatening, is it really the other way around? Is it humans that threaten the sharks? Again, ask them to do further research and craft an argument supporting their conclusion.

16. The Nature of Research. A good argument depends on research. An assertion that is not backed by evidence is merely an opinion. It may be interesting, but it’s unlikely to convince thoughtful readers. Instead of just turning students loose to hunt down information, though, why not help them make a research plan that will likely result in truly useful information? First, consider whether there is anywhere in your area that you might make a field trip to learn about sharks. Even if a local aquarium doesn’t house sharks, there may be an expert who would talk with your students on site—or perhaps visit your classroom. You never know until you ask. Second, check out the resources listed in the back of Roy’s book. Under “Selected Sources” as well as “Further Reading” you’ll find films, books, and online resources recommended by the author. This list offers a treasure house for unearthing more details. Set some ground rules, too. How many resources are sufficient for a short informational report such as your students plan to write? Two? Three? Discuss this with your students and talk about how a writer knows when he/she has enough information to begin writing.

17. Illustrations. Not all informational books are illustrated like this one. If you are able to share the book through a document projector so that students can see the illustrations clearly, talk about what they add to the book’s overall impact. How different would this book be without them? Some reviewers (and some teachers) feel that illustrations primarily appeal to younger readers and that books aimed at an older audience should include minimal illustrations. Do your students agree with this perspective? Why or why not? You may choose to write opinion pieces about this.

 

 18. “Shark Up!” Check out those final pages of the book once more (where resources are listed), and you’ll find a short note from Katherine Roy titled “Shark Up!” Share this note aloud with students and talk about how Katherine Roy’s experience helps lend her book credibility. Should we expect this kind of direct, hands-on experience from most informational writers? How important is it when citing a source to know where and how the writer obtained information?

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki takes a look at Lesley Roessing’s groundbreaking book, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect. Many books claim to show students how to embrace diversity. This one actually does it. You will not want to miss this review.

Right on the heels of that post, Jeff will be offering his insights regarding a book titled In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We gained many new viewers over the summer and we welcome you all! We hope you’ll be a regular visitor here at Gurus throughout the coming year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now

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Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. 2011. Sandpiper—HMH: Boston.

Genre: Novel

Ages: Grades 6-9

Review by Jeff Hicks

Summary

I know it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the absolute truth. As I read Okay for Now (a National Book Award Finalist), there were many moments where I laughed and/or I cried—out-loud, mirthful laughter and salty, stream down my face tears of sadness or for those moments of celebration when basic human goodness prevailed. In between those moments, I was nervous, scared, amazed, relieved, and always driven to keep reading. Seriously. I’m hoping you recognize Gary D. Schmidt as the author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both Newberry Honor Books and excellent reads on their own. (If his name and work is new to you, Okay for Now is a great place to start.) Okay for Now is described as a “companion book” to The Wednesday Wars—not exactly a sequel or prequel but a chance for Doug Swieteck (a friend of Holling Hoodhood, the main character from The Wednesday Wars), to tell his important story. (Both books are stand-alones, so you don’t have to read one before the other.) The book begins in 1968—Apollo space missions, the Vietnam War, political and social unrest/protest—and Doug’s family is moving from New York City to the “metropolis” of Marysville, a much smaller town in upstate New York. That means leaving friends and his Yankee hero, Joe Pepitone, behind and enrolling in a new school for his eighth grade year. Doug refers to his new home in “stupid” Marysville as “the Dump”—and he carries this attitude with him as he begins to explore his new surroundings. He also carries some heavy emotional baggage—a verbally and physically abusive father, one brother serving in Vietnam, another brother at home who wastes no time before stirring up trouble, his struggles with reading, and a couple rather heavy personal secrets. Doug’s first encounters with Marysville residents are less than cordial, but he manages to befriend Lil Spicer, whose dad owns the local deli. Doug and Lil’s paths continue to intersect at, strangely for Doug, the open-on-Saturdays-only public library. It is here that Doug continues to be pulled each Saturday, for friendship, for the amazing birds of John James Audubon, and for the mission he needs to help him shed some of the baggage clouding his life.

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Inside Your Classroom

  1. Background. For me, the background of this book is my childhood—Doug Swieteck and I grew up in the same time period. Though our family life was very different, the big events and issues of Doug’s time—the Vietnam War, Apollo space missions, baseball (Doug follows the New York Yankees), and the post-British invasion (music, not military)-pre-Woodstock world—are very familiar to me. You and/or your students may know someone who served or is currently serving in the military, in Vietnam, or more recently in Iraq/Afghanistan. This personal connection, with attention to its sensitive nature, could serve as a launching point for preliminary discussions of wartime, its impact on society, and its affect on both those who serve and their families. The Apollo space program is another topic worthy of discussion prior to reading. The missions leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing—Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man…”—were events focused on in school and talked about at home. The book begins with references to the New York Yankees and specifically to two famous players of the time, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark. Do any of your students follow professional baseball (or other sports)? What are their favorite teams? Who are their favorite players? What would it mean to them if they had an opportunity (like Doug does) to meet and play catch with their sports heroes?

(Note: It only takes a quick Internet search to locate information, images, and videos that could provide the necessary front-loading for students. I’ll return to these topics later when I discuss research/writing opportunities. )

  1. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll definitely need to preview this book prior to sharing it with students. Doug’s home life—abusive father, a bullying older brother and another brother who returns physically and emotionally scarred from duty in Vietnam—is something you’ll want to be prepared for before students begin to experience the book. These plot elements, handled honestly and respectfully, are absolutely central to the story and to Doug’s development as a character; they will surely elicit important questions and discussions.                                                  (Note/Warning): It’s important to know that there is a moment later in the book where the extent of physical abuse Doug has suffered at the hands of his father is revealed. It is a bit shocking, but by this time, readers know Doug well and can see that he’ll get through it with the help of his friends and the support of a wonderful teacher. You know your students best—you may decide that it’s not a book for all. I believe that Doug’s story will resonate with your students and with your guidance, the discussions and work will be meaningful.)

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Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of one of John James Audubon’s Birds of America illustrations. (The color example included above, is “The Black-Backed Gull,” Plate CCCLI, introduced in chapter four.) These are also central to the story/author’s message and essential for students to see. A quick Internet search will provide you with color images of these illustrations to project in your classroom. If possible, you could save each image in a folder for student access or provide them with a link to each illustration, posted on your teacher/school website. You could even go old school and display copies of the images on a bulletin board, adding a new image each time a chapter begins.

  1. Illustrations/Organizational structure. As I just described, each chapter of the book opens with one of the illustrations from Audubon’s, Birds of America. Though this is not a “picture book,” these illustrations are both road signs directing readers through the story, and windows into Doug’s way of thinking about the world. Their inclusion serves the important organizational purpose of previewing/reviewing plot elements and mirroring for readers Doug’s growing interest in Audubon’s art and his own drawing. I suggest showing students the illustration that opens chapter one, The Arctic Tern, Plate CCL, and ask them to do a quick write of their response to the image—what they see, feel, imagine, etc. These responses could be shared first with a partner or small group, then with the class. The question, “What in the illustration leads you to this thinking?” will help them find “support” for their ideas by returning to the source—the image—for evidence.

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Doug’s response to The Arctic Tern when he first sees it in the Marysville library gives readers some insight into what he’s feeling about his current life situation in his new town.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

            He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea…His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit…The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.

            This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.

            It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.

            The most beautiful. (Page 19)

How does this compare with your students’ responses? What do they know about Doug so far that might help explain his thinking? Why do you think he is so compelled to attempt to draw the bird? After finishing a chapter, go back to the illustration to connect any additional information they may have gleaned to their previous thinking. You don’t have to have students repeat this entire process for each chapter. They could keep a personal Audubon Bird “journal” to respond, reflect, make predictions, connect the dots of Doug’s life, chart the changes in the way Doug looks at his world, etc. This journal could be used as a resource for a more formal literary analysis focusing on the arc of Doug’s character growth.

  1. Details—“The Stats.” To quote Vicki from her recent post about Sneed Collard’s book, Fire Birds, “Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more.” This is true in both fiction and non-fiction writing. In Okay for Now, the author has created a character, Doug, who is a detail guy. (Which means the author is a detail guy.) Doug pays close attention to the world around him. Whether it’s absorbing baseball statistics and trivia, searching for places to hide his sacred Joe Pepitone jacket from his menacing brother, checking even the slightest facial cue to know what kind of mood his father is in, or the way Audubon has drawn feathers on one of his birds, Doug is a noticer. In his first interaction with Lil Spicer, before he knows her at all, he notices her smile: “She smiled—and it wasn’t the kind of smile that said I love you—and she skipped up the six marble steps toward the marble entrance.” (Page 17) The details the author has Doug notice help readers clearly see and feel the people, places, and happenings in his life. The details invite readers inside the writer’s ideas. As insiders, we want to keep reading, and that’s a good thing. Ask your students to look for examples where they feel invited inside the story, like the one above. Post some of these examples on a bulletin board to remind students to invite their readers inside every time they write. Keep an eye out as you read for moments where Doug gives readers what he calls the stats—you’ll see some examples on pages 14, 49, 104, 168, etc. Here are the stats—things he notices—from the kitchen of one of the people he delivers items from Spicer’s Delicatessen to (yes, he gets a job from Lil’s father).

The floor was white and yellow tile—twenty-four tiles

                        wide, eighteen tiles long.

            One rack with sixteen copper pots and pans hanging over

                        a woodblock table.

            Four yellow stools around the woodblock table.

            Twelve glass cupboards—all white inside. You could

                        have put my mother’s dishes into any one of these

                        and you would have had plenty of room left over.

            And the dishes! All white and yellow. And the glasses!

                        Who knows how many? All matching. Not a sin-

                        gle one chipped. (Page 49)

Precise numbers, colors, specific descriptors, feelings—this almost poetic inventory creates a strong image of this kitchen and how sharply it contrasts with his own. I would have students imitate this form—“the stats”—to practice their own skills as noticers. They could do “the stats” from their class time with you, to create a picture of what their room at home looks like, to review or summarize a chapter from this book, to recount their lunch break, to summarize research, as a form of poetry, etc. It’s all about the details!

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  1. Research. The CCSS have got everyone talking about the balance of “fiction vs. non-fiction” reading. The standards also have us talking about writing—“narrative vs. informational/expository/argument.” The conversation often gets heated, but I’m glad we’re talking, especially about writing. Okay for Now is, of course, a fictional narrative. As I was reading, though, I couldn’t help but connect the fictional people and events to my very real, non-fiction life. And my reader’s brain kept prodding me with questions that required me to delve into the non-fiction information world to find answers. Here are just a few of the things I felt would be worthy of some further reading and “research”:

The Vietnam War

-Soldiers returning home

-PTSD

-Treatment of veterans

-Comparison to World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan

Space Exploration

-Apollo missions

-Landing on the moon

-Manned, unmanned missions

-“The Space Race”

Sports Stars/Heroes

-Joe Pepitone, Horace Clark

-Sports stars as role models

-Sports memorabilia

-Biography

-Compared to today—salaries, television, social media

John James Audubon

-Bird research

-Ornithology

-Etching, watercolor

-Audubon Society

-Endangered Species

-Biography

-Importance of art

Broadway Plays

-New York City

-Adapting novels to plays

-Acting as a profession

-Role of producer

-Stagecraft—sets, lighting, costumes, etc.

Libraries

-Books vs. “electronic” reading

-Importance in communities today vs. years ago

-Funding advocacy

Rights of the Disabled

-Handicap access—ramps, elevators, etc.

Community Activism

-Preserving history, landmarks, traditions

Any one of these ideas (there are many more possibilities) could become, with some questioning/stretching/narrowing/personalizing, a topic for further student reading (non-fiction) and research-based informational writing. Several from this list could become topics turned into written arguments or debate topics—for/against—attempting to inform and persuade readers.

Not to belabor the obvious point, but the reading of quality “fiction” can lead to the reading of quality “non-fiction.” The opposite is also true. We learn anytime we read. And when students are exposed to a variety of models of quality writing—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.—commingled with a variety of writing opportunities, their writing improves.

  1. Impact of the book. “Everyone has a bag of rocks to carry.” I can’t remember who first put this notion inside my head, bit it stuck. I tried to think about this with every student in my class. Sometimes it’s clear what kinds of rocks someone is carrying—learning difficulties, hunger, difficult home lives. Other times, you don’t know the bag’s contents, but you know it’s a heavy load. To paraphrase a bit from Vicki’s Fire Birds post (STG January 26, 2015—be sure to read it!), “Good writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding or appreciation of a topic.” If anything, experiencing this book might help students be more aware of the rocks people are carrying, and to look more compassionately at classmates, family members, and people in general. New York Times op/ed writer Nicholas Kristof has suggested that there is something he calls a “compassion gap” in America and has questioned how we can help develop a greater sense of compassion in our citizens. Meeting Doug Swieteck—his family, friends, mentors, teachers—and his bag of rocks, in the book Okay for Now, is a place to start.

About the author . . .

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For more information about author Gary D. Schmidt and his books, visit http://www.hmhbooks.com/schmidt/

One intriguing (at least to me or anyone with Hicks as a last name) tidbit about Mr. Schmidt is that he was born in Hicksville, New York. Totally amazing, right?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m working on a couple things—a review of Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, and some commentary on Thomas Newkirk’s thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. 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.

 

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Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

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

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

 

A Caveat

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

 

Two Things to Notice

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

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

 

The Top 8

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

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

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

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

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

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

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

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

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

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

 

What kinds of purposes are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

Example 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

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

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

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

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

World without Fish

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

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

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

Teaching Leads

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

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

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

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

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

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

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

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

Harris and Me

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

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

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

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

The Animal Dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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

 

Teaching Detail

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

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

FEATURE 4: Structure

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

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

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

Main Point or Argument & Support

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

Revealing the Solution

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

Comparison and Contrast

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

Question and Answer

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

Grouping

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

Step by Step

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

Chronological Order

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

Visual Patterns

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

Point and Counterpoint

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

Recurring Theme

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

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

Planning Your Writing

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

Moonshot

Drama: A Different Organizational Design

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

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

Act 1

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

Act 2

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

Act 3

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

 

PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

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

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

Teaching Structure

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

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

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

A Splash of Red

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. 2013. Written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Unpaginated.

Genre: Picture book, biography, nonfiction

Ages: Grades 2 and up

Awards: Caldecott Honor Book, Schneider Family Book Award, Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding nonfiction for children

Summary

“Make a picture for us, Horace!” From the time he was a small child, Horace Pippin (1888-1946) heard this request everywhere he went—at home, in school, on the job, and later on the battlefields of France in World War I. He had talent to be sure—but he also had vision. Horace seemed to carry pictures of all he had seen in his head, and he had an incredible ability to translate those pictures into sketches and paintings. In words and art, this delightful picture book tells the story of a young man compelled to capture his experience on paper. He summoned details through imagination and memory, then simply “told his heart to go ahead.”

It took years for Horace to become famous, but ultimately, his work graced galleries and museums (where it can be seen to this day), and was purchased by collectors and movie stars. He has been called a folk artist and a primitive artist, and it is easy to understand why; his work is deceptively simple in its lines and choice of colors. Yet it also has a mysterious quality that is remarkably difficult to replicate. In a time when art is often seen as superfluous, a likely target for school district budget cuts, it is heartening to read the story of a person who relentlessly followed his dreams of self-expression and who never gave up, even when fulfilling those dreams became next to impossible. Jen Bryant captures Horace’s moving tale in simple language suitable for even young readers. Melissa Sweet’s distinctively homey art reflects the history of love and challenge that produced a great American artist. Let your young readers and writers see just how captivating nonfiction can be. This is a book that invites and merits multiple readings. It is an artistic masterpiece in its own right.

 

In the Classroom

1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. The seemingly simple tale has in fact numerous details that help reveal a very strong and interesting character. As you’ll soon discover for yourself, Horace Pippin is one determined fellow! You’ll also want to take note of the “splash of red” in each of Melissa Sweet’s own illustrations. Her style pays homage to the original artist.

2. Background. Art is no longer the common part of school curriculum that it once was. If your school is fortunate enough to have an art program, you might want to let students know that this is not the case everywhere. Do they have a favorite artist? How many have been to an art museum or gallery? Why is art important in our lives? Why do we value it, collect it, admire it—or produce it ourselves? Sharing suggestion: Using a document projector, share some works by famous artists of our time or throughout history. Ask students to comment on various pieces, perhaps to choose a favorite. Writing suggestion: Students may enjoy writing poetry or commentary suggested by a piece of art that speaks to them. You can model this by choosing a favorite piece of your own and writing a poem based simply on words or expressions that occur to you as you view that piece. As an alternative, imagine yourself a figure inside a painting—a dancer, for example. Imagine yourself living the scene you see depicted in the art, and write what you are thinking. Then let students try this.

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students think of themselves as artists? Do any of them draw or paint—or build things? Some may express themselves in other forms, such as drama or dance. Talk about the value of art from a personal perspective. What benefits do we gain from having art as a way of expressing ourselves?

4. Opinion writing. Though art is not commonly taught in schools these days, should it be? Talk about this, and perhaps generate a list of pros and cons, including the cost of having an art program and the need to take time from other subjects versus the advantages of introducing students to numerous artists and art forms. Then ask students to write an opinion piece taking one side or the other and defending their position with reasons based on your discussion or their own thinking.

 5. Central Topic/Theme. What is the central message of the book? Why do you think author Jen Bryant felt it was important to tell Horace’s story? What do we learn from this book?

 6. Details. Where did Horace get his ideas? How does his artistic process (letting pictures come into his mind, then painting what he sees) compare to a writer’s process?

7. Reading for meaning. At one point in the book, Horace says, “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for he must be true to himself . . .” What does he mean by this? (Note: Young students may struggle a bit with this, but many will enjoy the challenge of a discussion with philosophical depth. They may surprise you with their understanding.)

 8. Symbolism.Why did Horace include that splash of red in every single one of his paintings? What might that color have meant to him? Notice Melissa Sweet’s illustrations throughout the book. Does she include a splash of red in her paintings as well? Why do you think she does so?

 9. Inference. Everywhere Horace goes, people ask, “Draw for us, Horace. Paint for us.” Not every artist has this experience. But for Horace it’s almost an everyday occurrence. How come? What is so compelling in Horace’s work that people cannot resist it? Suggestion: Three small replications of Horace Pippin’s actual work appear at the bottom of the very last pages in the book. You might share these on a document projector or, if possible, obtain larger images so that they can take in the details. You can also go online to see replications of Pippin’s work and videos about his life. Simply enter “Horace Pippin” into your search engine for an array of choices.

10. Research. Horace Pippin has often been called a “folk artist.” What does this mean? Have students research this, providing as much help as they require. You might begin with a definition. What is folk art? Then find examples on line to view and discuss. What qualities does folk art exhibit? Be sure to check out the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, as well as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). You’ll find numerous samples of folk art online, as well as interesting summaries of the history of this form. Is folk art something your students might like to try for themselves? Create your own exhibit! And don’t forget . . . Horace Pippin got ideas from his surroundings, experiences, and everyday life. Those simple things can be inspirations for your students, too.

11. Informational writing. Ask students to create a short piece defining “folk art” as an art form and providing one or two examples of folk artists in addition to Horace Pippin. Provide whatever additional assistance with research is necessary.

12. Character development. What sort of person was Horace Pippin? Research this together by identifying specific details or passages from the book that reveal what he was like (e.g., including sketches in his spelling list, helping out at home, finding a way to draw even when he lost the use of his arm). Writing follow-up: Following your class research and discussion, ask students to create a one-paragraph (or longer) character sketch of Horace Pippin, identifying one or more character traits and defending each trait with a specific example from the book.

 13. Organizing through events. A biography can be organized in various ways. For this book, Bryant chose to focus on events that helped shape the person Horace Pippin became. To appreciate how well this organizational design works, ask your students to think like writers and as a class, to make a timeline of the major events throughout the book. (You can do the actual sketching as they offer suggestions. Consider reading the book again as you go and identifying events important enough to add to the timeline). Writing challenge. Students can use timelines or life maps (non-linear lines) to track important events in their own lives. They don’t need to recall everything—but many may know of a move or the birth of a baby through stories told by parents, grandparents, or other care givers. The trick with a good timeline is to capture major events and let the trivia go. These timelines/life maps provide excellent prewriting strategies for creating autobiographies.

14. Voice through art. Like writers, artists have a distinctive voice. Look carefully at the art of Melissa Sweet, as displayed in this book. What words would you use to describe it? Make a class list. Was this particular artist a good choice for illustrating the life of Horace Pippin? Why? What makes Melissa Sweet’s style—or voice—a particularly good match for this story? Suggestion: View a range of picture books illustrated by various artists. Is there a style or voice your students particularly warm to? Consider making an art display using book covers your students feel are outstanding. Opinion writing: Ask students to write a review for a favorite illustrator. The review might include words that describe the artist’s style, or thoughts on what the work makes readers think or feel.

15. Conventions and presentation. Most of the print throughout the book is 19-point Galena Condensed. Most people find this an easy-to-read font. Do your students agree? Notice, however, that the actual words of Horace Pippin (the words he speaks) are made to look very different on the page. How were those words created? Do your students like the chunky letter look? Can they imitate it? Horace himself was commended as an artist for something called “composition,” which is the arrangement of elements on the page. In this book, composition elements include both print and art. How would your students rate the strength of the composition throughout the book on a scale of 1 to 10?

 

 16. Bringing art up close. If you are lucky enough to have an artist in your community, invite him or her to visit your class to talk with students and engage in a conversation about the artistic process. Prepare students for this interview by asking them to think of questions they might like to ask, and even discussing possible questions with one another and with you. Through this process, students can learn more about where artists get their ideas and how they transform an idea into a piece of art. Note: For an insightful look at the artistic process through a child’s eyes, see Harriet Ziefert’s brilliant Lunchtime for a Purple Snake (2003, Houghton Mifflin). The book is currently out of print, but used copies are available online, often for less than a dollar.

 

Lunchtime for a Purple Snake 

17. Collaboration. In this book, it’s clear that author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have a harmonious collaboration going on. They work brilliantly together! Each picture seems to reflect the meaning of the words on the page, all the while adding meaning of its own. Have your students try this. Ask them to work in teams of two (one writer, one illustrator) to create a story, poem, informational piece, or any other form of writing. Like Bryant and Sweet, they might consider reading or researching together, brainstorming ideas, engaging in some sort of prewriting, then creating their final piece. Note: To introduce this activity, you may wish to share the Author’s Note and Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book. What ways did Bryant and Sweet find to work together on this project? What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator? Talk about this with your students.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

It’s nearly summer, believe it or not. We plan to be around through the summer, reviewing books you may wish to share with students in the upcoming school year. But before we all get involved in the many activities of summer, we want to suggest some parting ideas for helping students think like writers during the summer months. We have a few light-hearted ideas (we’re not talking research papers here) that will keep students’ thinking skills sharp without draining their energy or taking up too much of that precious summer time. Stop by next week and see our list of suggestions—and bring a friend or two. Don’t forget: It’s not too early to plan fall PD. If you’d like some help making the Common Core manageable and practical, or connecting it to process, traits, and fine literature, we can help design a workshop or series of classroom demo’s just for you. Give us a call at 503-579-3034. And meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:
http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/literature-and-language-arts/language-arts/write-traits

write_traits_kit_150

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

“The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.”

A few weeks ago, a suburban school district administrator said this to me (and it has taken me some time to wrap my head around the words) during the morning break of the trait-focused writing training I was doing. On this day, I was working with middle school teachers, and the following day I would be with a group of high school teachers. The administrator had not observed any of the training and had just popped in to see how things were going. The books I had specifically chosen and brought with me to use during these two trainings were spread out on a table near the front of the room.  The selection ranged from professional topics, novels and non-fiction specific to various content areas, all the way to several picture books—yes, picture books. I’m sure you would be able to imagine my reasoning for intentionally including picture books knowing full well the make up of my audiences. Well, imagine again, my surprise when this administrator, who had only been in the room for a few seconds, took a rather hasty, cursory scan of my book table and announced, “The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.”  As I was thinking about my response—keeping my jaw from hitting the floor and my eyes from rolling out of their sockets—the administrator’s phone rang, ending the awkward moment. I didn’t see this administrator again during my two days of training.

I want you to know that I was not eaten alive by either group of teachers—not even a nibble or a bite. Not surprisingly, both the middle and high school teachers were more than receptive to the books on my table and my suggestions for using them in their own classrooms. They were well beyond “buying in.” The high school teachers even shared a few titles of their own, along with how they had successfully used them with their students, again without anyone being eaten alive.

I wanted to respond to this administrator in the most positive manner I could think of, so I enlisted the help of a few high school teachers I have worked with or met during workshops (including a couple from the workshop I just described). What follows is our “response,” a short list of picture book titles and a brief description (not a lesson plan) of how they were used in real high school classrooms. This list is just a start. Middle and high school teachers have shared with me how they have used picture books to introduce content topics, extend a topic beyond the limits of assigned textbooks, exemplify elements of specific traits—details, leads/conclusions, strong words choices, fluent sentences, correct/creative use of conventions, etc.—model appropriate/creative presentation, and so on. Each of these is a demonstration of how purposefully selected picture books can be used to teach, inspire, and motivate high school writers—all writers.

Note: When using picture books in any classroom, it is important that students be able to see the pictures and text. A document camera is one of the easiest ways to do this, especially because it allows you to zoom in on picture details and individual words/phrases/sentences. Of course, you can do this the old fashioned way by gathering students up close in their desks, chairs, or on the floor. (Once, when I was doing a demonstration lesson in a class of 11th graders, I pulled out the picture book I was going to use and students began pushing chairs and desks out of the way. A student blurted out, “Criss-cross applesauce!” as everyone sat on the floor in front of me. It was a bit crowded, but they were so into the moment, I just ran with it.)

 

 

Unknown1. Once Upon MacDonald’s Farm. 1981/2000. Stephen Gammell. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 32 pages.

Summary: Author and illustrator Stephen Gammell offers a humorous, fresh view of the old song that nearly every kid knows. This Old MacDonald doesn’t even have any animals, and when he decides to get some, his choices show that he really doesn’t know much about farming. Instead of the more common and useful cow, chicken, or horse, MacDonald gets an elephant, baboon, and a lion.

Use/Topic: Literary Devices—Irony, Dramatic Irony

This book plays on something very familiar to students/readers, Old MacDonald and his farm, but events go contrary to what the readers expect, resulting in a humorous outcome. Readers clearly know more than MacDonald about farming and what the outcome of his choices will be. This book is a fun, simple (without being simplistic) introduction to an important literary device. It provides a touchstone example of a difficult concept and a gateway to understanding irony as it may be used in more advanced literary selections.

Other titles to help with Literary Devices: 

Juxtaposition9780761323785_p0_v1_s114x166Unlikely Pairs: Fun with Famous Works of Art. 2006. Bob Raczka. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press

Point of View9780789481917_p0_v1_s114x166Voices in the Park. 1998. Anthony Browne. New York: DK Publishing.

 

9780689820359_p0_v1_s114x1662. If You’re Not From the Prairie. 1995. Story—David Bouchard. Images—Henry Ripplinger. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.

Summary: Author and illustrator collaborate to create an artistic, poetic tribute to all aspects of life on the prairie—the beauty and climatic extremes. The author tells readers all the things they don’t know and can’t know about the prairie—the sun, wind, sky, flatness, cold and heat—because they’re not from the prairie. In the process, the author is passionately filling readers with all that he knows because he is from the prairie. By the end of the poem, readers have gained an understanding and appreciation for a place and life very different from their own. Readers have been filled with insider knowledge—words and images.

Use/Topic: Inspire Immitation—Poetry from Personal Knowledge/Experience

This book provides an excellent platform for imitation by student writers. Students can choose to focus on placeIf you’re not from Seattle…, If you’ve never been to Lake Chelan…, or personal experienceIf you’re not an only child…, If you’re not a hockey player…, If you don’t love to cook…, or use it to demonstrate content knowledgeIf you don’t know Atticus Finch…, If you’re not an igneous rock…, If you’re not an amphibian…, and so on. The poetry they create could rhyme, as it does in the book, or not. Their poety could imitate the author’s repeated phrasing, or not. The focus is on filling readers up with insider knowledge, details, and feelings.

 

Excerpts of Student Poetry Inspired by If You’re Not From the Prairie:

If You’re Not from the Coast of Peru…

By A. D.

If you’re not from the Coast of Peru, you don’t know

The taste of fresh seafood just pulled from the water.

You can’t know the taste. You’ve never tasted fresh shrimp cooked

With lime, garlic, nuts, salt, and pepper that make you drool like a baby.

If you’re not from the Coast, you’ve never tasted the ocean…

 

If You’re Not a Book Lover…

By H. J.

If you’re not a book lover,

You don’t know about books—boxes of books,

Double stacked shelves of books,

Books piled on the stairs, by the couch,

Teetering on the bedside table.

If you’re not a book lover,

You don’t know that intoxicating smell of a new book,

About pushing your nose right up and into the binding,

Careful not to push too hard…

 

If You’re Not from the Mantle…

By S. B.

If you’re not from the mantle, you don’t know convection,

You can’t know my magma.

You’ll never feel the searing heat or gases hiss

Or watch the layers fold and break about your head.

 

If you’re not from the mantle,

You’ll never see the plates slide

Or collide

Or get fried

Or watch a small part of you escape

Knowing you have shaped the world…

 

9780439895293_p0_v1_s114x1663. The Arrival. 2006. Shaun Tan. Melbourne: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Summary: This wordless picture book is both a compelling page-turner and an amazing work of art, worthy of a slow, lingering “read.” The author/illustrator’s sepia illustrations detail the journey of a man immigrating to a new and strange land. The earthy tones of each image are at times warm and peaceful then suddenly cold and menacing mirroring the successes and struggles of the man as he attempts to build a new life. There is no story told in text, and any language included in the illustrations uses an invented system of letters/symbols, immersing readers in the language/cultural barriers facing new immigrants.

Use/Topic: Immigration

This book was used to help students personalize the topic of immigration and launch a discussion about the total experience of immigrants in a US history class. The book’s images encouraged students to talk about the personal and political reasons behind the decision to leave one’s home country—governmental oppression, religious oppression, seeking personal freedom, education, employment, etc. The Arrival was not used in place of the students’ history texts but to help provide a lead-in and context for the fact/figure/information heavy content students would face in their assigned texts.

9781580138826_p0_v1_s114x1664. The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations with Seven Works of Art. 2009. Bob Raczka. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Summary: Author Bob Raczka turns “interviewer” to give readers an inside look at Jan Vermeer’s art, personal/professional life, and the times in which he lived. Rather than “interview” the mysterious Mr. Vermeer, the author sits down with seven of the artist’s amazing paintings, imagining tell-all conversations with their long silent subjects. Bob’s questions get the painting’s subjects talking about the artist’s techniques, historical and cultural details, and about Vermeer the man, encouraging them to dish on their creator. Though the conversations are “imagined” by the author, the information behind them is authoritative and well researched. In the end, readers are treated to a detailed look at seven beautiful works of art and a greater understanding of Vermeer the man and artist.

Use/Topic: Creative Biographies/Primary Source Writing

English Class–Sharing this book led to students doing “imagined” interviews with characters from novels/literature studied in class—e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, and The River Why.

History—This book was used as a model for writing creative biographies of historical figures being studied, helping students move away from “encyclopedic, book reporty” products. Students were guided through comprehensive research of their chosen subject, helping them become expert enough to “imagine” informative, interesting interviews. It was also used as a motivating model with a family history project, where students were asked to interview elder family members to turn into first person histories, written in the voice of the interviewee.

Other titles to help with creative biographies/primary source writing:

imgres-1Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World. 2006.  Jane Breskin Zalben. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.

9780375868443_p0_v1_s114x166You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!. 2013. Jonah Winter & Terry Widener. New York: Schwarz & Wade Books.

9780763635831_p0_v1_s114x166The Secret World of Walter Anderson. 2009. Hester Bass. Illustrations by E.B. Lewis. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

imgres-3Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey. 2009. Gary Golio. Paintings by Rudy Gutierrez. Boston: Clarion Books.

Final Note

At its heart, this post is not solely about one administrator’s misguided statement about using picture books in secondary classrooms. It’s about the importance of professional judgment, best practices, purposeful planning, the craft of teaching, and developing relationships with students. If only I’d had the time to say all this before the phone rang, ending the possibility of a real conversation.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will review an anthology of essays called Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from one essay, Why Less is Not More: What We Lose By Letting A Computer Score Writing Samples, written by William Condon—“… At the very moment when performance assessments are helping promote consistency in writing instruction across classrooms, machine scoring takes us back to a form of assessment that simples does not reach into the classroom.” Shout it from the rooftops!

Remember, if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

9781596434875_p0_v4_s114x166

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. 2012. Steve Sheinkin. New York: Roaring Book Press.

Genre: Informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 5 and up

Features: Historic information; vintage photos, letters; resource list for further research; source notes; quotation notes; index.

266 pages (including end matter)

Summary

Steve Sheinkin is a writer of many talents. He knows how to write award-winning books. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, have earned high praise and honors—National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor, to just begin the list.  And he also knows how to title his books to make them practically leap off the “shelf” into the hands of anxious readers. Whether you prefer to access books electronically or traditionally, you know, old school with bound paper pages, Mr. Sheinkin’s titles alone are enough to entice readers to grab or click and jump in. (More to come below on titles.) That’s no small skill for an author of non-fiction histories. This is especially true in light of the Common Core State Standards pushing teachers and students towards more informational reading and writing.

For many student readers, informational reading, especially in history, is a turn-off (I won’t use the word boring, a word that was banned from our house to keep our son from using it as a crutch). For many teachers and students, their experiences with informational texts and textbooks have been less than positive—dry, encyclopedic mounds of lifeless facts, dates, places, etc.  Author Sheinkin, in his bio on Bomb’s slip cover, after admitting to being a former textbook writer, states his intention to “dedicate his life to making up for previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history.” Fortunately for teachers and students, he is doing just that. His recent book, Bomb, delivers on all fronts–an exciting title and a well crafted, informative, and engagingly “gripping narrative” history.

What Mr. Sheinkin understands is the importance of story. Cognitive scientist Mark Turner explains in his 1996 book The Literary Mind, “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought…It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.” History is stories. Science is stories. Mathematics is stories. In A Whole New Mind (2005), Daniel Pink emphasizes it this way, “Stories are easier to remember—because in many ways, stories are how we remember.” I think educators have to be careful to avoid pitting narrative writing against informational writing, or reading works of fiction against non-fiction content. I don’t see them as being separate and discrete elements of literacy. Stories provide the context to determine the value of information, to sort, categorize, and remember. What do classroom teachers do then, to make sense of the CCSS emphasis on informational/expository reading and writing?  Strike a balance. Don’t abandon one to serve the other. Help students to access reading that is motivating to help them develop the desire and the tenacity to tackle content—narrative and informational—that may be more complex. Continue teaching, practicing, and building skill in narrative writing because of its connections to building skill in informational, expository, and persuasive writing. Adopting the CCSS does not mean scrapping common sense. (To learn more about the value of narrative writing, including some myth busting, be sure to check out Vicki’s post from June 25, 2012, Dissecting and Defending Narrative Writing via the Common Core.)

So how does Steve Sheinkin begin his thrilling history—from discovery to deployment—of the atomic bomb? With the story, of course! And what a story it is! Scientists (Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein), spies, double agents, secret governmental agencies, super secret missions, world leaders (Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler), American presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman), plots and counter plots, and more! This book is a history lesson, well researched, complete with all the names, dates, events, and locations told with a storyteller’s eye and ear for detail and audience.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You could select chapters or passages to share aloud to build excitement for independent reading or make connections to supplement a history text. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud or a book study where each student has a copy—and it would work well for either, I would recommend devoting a flip-chart page or part of a bulletin board to helping students keep track of all the important figures. There are a lot of “characters.” You could even keep three charts—one to follow the American development of the bomb, one for the Russian efforts to steal the bomb’s technology, and one for the people involved in sabotaging the German scientists attempting to build a bomb for their side. I would involve students in researching/finding images of each player to copy and post on the charts. This could be done as a hierarchical organizational chart to show the connections between each person, government, or agency. There are b/w photos of the key figures, included at the beginning of each of the book’s four sections. Each photo includes the subject’s name and brief identifying information—e.g. Harry Truman U.S. President 1945-1953. These could be shown to students using a document camera and serve as models for the students during their research.

2. Historic background. What do your students know about World War II—the leaders and countries involved, how the U.S. became involved, or how it ended? Is it an area of interest for any of them? Do any of them have relatives who fought or were involved in the war? The level of background information may, of course, depend on the age/grade of your students. They don’t need to know everything—this isn’t a complete history of the war—but a few key details will help students understand the urgency felt by the United States to direct and affect the war’s outcome. Science, especially physics and chemistry, is at the heart of this story. Are some of your students interested in a specific area of science? What do they know about the study of physics or chemistry? You don’t have to be a physicist or chemist, but you can be a guide to helping them find out what scientists in these fields do. This may help them begin to look for answers to the question—How does a college physics professor in Berkeley, California, end up working on a top secret project to develop the weapon that will be used to end World War II and change the world for all of us?

3. Images/Stereotypes. Popular culture, especially television and movies, has often guided our images of science and scientists and even the role of science in our world. The Nutty Professor, The Absent Minded Professor, Frankenstein, Gilligan’s Island, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and more recently, The Big Bang Theory, Ironman, CSI, Bones, and Breaking Bad. What are your students’ images of science/scientists? The nerdy or evil genius? The oddball crackpot? The suave jetsetter with the cool toys? The shy lab rat in the white coat? Have any of these stereotypes affected their interest in science? What are your students’ experiences with stereotypes each day at school?

4. Details/Purpose/Audience. One of the most striking things about Steve Sheinkin’s book is how much readers learn about physics and chemistry without being overwhelmed with theories, laws, processes, and terminology. I wouldn’t call it “Science Lite”—the author is not dumbing anything down for readers. He has chosen a level of detail that matches his purpose for writing, and his awareness of his audience. Discuss the concept of audience with your students. Why is it important, as a writer, to know and write for your audience? Who was the last audience they may have written for? How did that knowledge affect their writing (pre-writing, research, narrowing of topic, etc.)?

5. Becoming an “Expert.” Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are experts on their topics. 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 discover the writer is posing as an expert? Spend some time with your students looking at the Source Notes, Quotation Notes, and Acknowledgments sections at the back of the book. What do these sections suggest to students about the expertise of Steve Sheinkin? This would also be a good time to talk about the differences between primary and secondary sources. Why is it important in a book like this to seek out so many primary sources?

6. Book Titles and Grabbing the Audience. I mentioned earlier that one of the author’s skills was the way his books are titled. How does a book’s title demonstrate the author’s audience awareness? Do titles make a difference in a book’s initial appeal? (What if Louis Sachar’s award winning book, Holes, had been titled Some Kids in the Desert With Shovels?) Are titles important to readers? How do they help our minds begin to ask questions, make predictions, or know what to focus on? Have your students identify what they see as the key words (words that grabbed their interest/attention) in the title, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. I recently asked a sixth grade student I’m working with to do just this before knowing anything else about the direction of the book.  She highlighted bomb, race, steal, and dangerous. She then made a prediction about the book focused on the words race and steal. This student thought that the race could be against time and/or against others. The word steal made her think that race was “…so important that someone would cheat in a very sneaky way to win.” This is a kind of concept formation practice—setting our thinking in motion prior to reading.

7. Organization. Ask your students to describe the overall organizational pattern of the book. Yes, it’s chronological, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a prologue, epilogue, and four main parts dividing the chapters. The author has chosen to begin his story at the end, with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American man the Soviets were using as a spy. How does this choice create interest for readers? What questions does it spark in the minds of curious readers? You could have your students begin a timeline with Harry Gold’s arrest in 1950, knowing they will have to jump back in time as the rest of the story begins to unfold in the first chapter. It is 1934 when readers meet young scientist Robert Oppenheimer in the book’s first chapter. The timeline and organizational chart suggested earlier could be added to as the story progresses. Students could not only keep track of the “characters” but how they are involved in the events of the story.

8. Voice. How would your students describe the voice of this book? Is it encyclopedic? The voice of a history professor lecturing to students? The voice of a scientist speaking to colleagues?  Passionate? Knowledgeable? Biased? Professional? Come up with your own list of words—and discuss the kind of voice you (and they) feel is appropriate or effective in an informational piece. Is there a connection between finding that appropriate/effective voice and being an expert on your topic?

9. Sentence Fluency/Dialogue/Voice. As a writer, if you are going to tell an exciting story filled with characters, from heroic to villainous, you need to have these characters interacting through dialogue. Readers will feel more involved with your story and connected with your characters. But what if your story is about a real historical event involving real people? How do we know what historical figures said to one another? Bomb is filled with dialogue between scientists, spies, generals, soldiers, and presidents. So what did Steve Sheinkin do to get his “characters” talking? Research! And lots of it! Check out the Quotation Notes section to help students understand, again, the importance of the writer as topic expert. Have students take roles and read sections aloud (try the Prologue) to see, hear, and feel how the dialogue helps readers identify, understand, and connect to each character. Is it appropriate to approximate, after extensive research, what historical figures might have said in various situations, if no actual record exists? What is the difference between historical writing and historical fiction?

10. Modern Devices/Secret Codes. A great deal of Bomb’s story is about communication—face to face, in letters, radio transmissions, coded notes, etc. Today’s students are used to communicating instantly with a variety of personal electronic devices and through various forms of social media (My old man is showing, but I’m uneasy with using the word social when a great deal of this type of interaction is not about meeting people face to face.) How many of your students have written/received actual letters? What is the difference, in their minds, between receiving a text and a letter? What is their preferred method of communicating with friends? Parents? How would the use of modern communication devices—computers, email, cell phones, etc.—have altered the events of Bomb? Are secrets harder to keep now? Are people, in general, less private? The spies in the book communicated through coded messages. Have any of your students ever developed or used their own secret code? (Some of your students might be interested in researching the Navajo code talkers used during World War II.)

11. Argument. Engage your students in discussion and writing about one or more of the topics below (or generate some of your own). Discussion is a great form of pre-writing and will help suggest the level of research needed to become “experts” as they begin writing.

  •        The role of science in our world today
  •        How the development and deployment of the atomic bomb changed the world
  •        Nuclear weapon technology is crucial to national security
  •        Other ideas _______________

 

12. Other Models. The more students are exposed to lively informational writing, grounded in story (narrative), the easier it will be for them to write in a similar fashion. Narrative writing is more than beginning, middle, and end. Informational writing is about more than a mountain of information. Besides books like Bomb, one of my favorite sources/resources for this blend of narrative informational writing is National Geographic magazine. Each issue is filled great with writing and, as a bonus, amazing photography. The April 2013 issue, for example, has a thought-provoking article about the scientific possibilities and environmental implications of de-extinction—reviving currently extinct species. The article is exciting science and history, and it’s a model of the kind of informational writing that begs to be read.

 

To find out more about Steve Sheinkin and his books, visit stevesheinkin.com

 

Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Vicki reviews Andrea Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Drop by any time to see what’s new or mine our archive for some gold you may have missed. 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.

 

9780547471051_p0_v1_s260x420Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children. 2013. Jan Pinborough. Illustrator: Debby Atwell. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 40 pp.

Genre: Informational narrative/biography/history
Ages: Grades K and up.

Summary
From the time my son was an infant until well into elementary school, we used to visit our local library at least three times a month to check out a fresh bagful of books. So, first of all, after reading this book, I need to say, “Many, many thanks to Minerva Sanders, Lutie Stearns, Mary Wright Plummer, Caroline M. Hewins, Clara Hunt, and Anne Carroll Moore!” (There are most likely many others to thank whose names are not listed here. The National Women’s History Project website reminds us, “Even when recognized in their own times, women are frequently left out of the history books.”) This formidable group of women librarians helped change attitudes about children and reading, and paved the way for the development of children’s libraries.  Anne Carroll Moore, as readers will learn in Jan Pinborough’s informative picture book, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, used the force of her tenacious personality and her position at the New York Public Library to promote and expand the concept of children’s library services both here in the United States and in many countries around the world. (Be sure to read the “More About Miss Moore” section at the end of the book.)

It may be hard for us to believe now, but in Limerick, Maine in 1880, when Miss Moore was nine years old, attitudes about children and reading were very different from the way we think today. Kids weren’t allowed in libraries and books for children, if there were many, were often kept locked up. Children couldn’t even put their hands on books, much less check them out and take them home. But when it came to libraries, children’s books, and reading for both boys and girls, thankfully,  “Miss Moore thought otherwise.” She moved to New York to attend the Pratt Institute library school. Her first job was at the Pratt Free Library working in the new children’s room, where kids could actually take the books off the shelf! Her “otherwise” thinking at the Pratt led her to the New York Public Library system. It was here that Miss Moore’s vision for children’s libraries really came to life. Her faith in children helped her persuade New York librarians to allow kids to borrow books, take them home, and be trusted to return them. My son’s bag of books might never have happened without Anne Carroll Moore. Thank you, Anne, for always thinking “otherwise.” And thank you to Jan Pinborough and Debby Atwell for bringing Anne’s story to light. It’s up to us now to help get Miss Moore Thought Otherwise onto library shelves, into classrooms, and into the hands of young readers.

UnknownBrave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909. 2013. Michelle Markel. Illustrator: Melissa Sweet. New York, NY: Balzer + Bray. 32 pp.

Genre: Informational narrative/biography/history
Ages: Grades K and up.

Summary
Clara Lemlich, like Anne Carroll Moore, was also a young woman who thought and acted otherwise, and even became the leader in an otherwise movement that led to big changes for women and workers in the early 1900’s. In Michelle Markel’s inspiring new picture book, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909, readers are introduced to a real fighter, young Clara Lemlich. Clara and her family immigrated to New York from the Ukraine to escape government persecution and find a better life. Barely speaking any English, Clara wants to go to school but is forced to seek work when her father is unable to find a job. Fortunately for her family, Clara does find work, but unfortunately for her and thousands of other young immigrant women, the work is in the garment industry. But as the author reveals to us, Clara has “grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.” Clara takes the work and faces it head on. The pay is barely enough to pay for food and rent and the working conditions are inhumane. Author Markel’s text and illustrator Sweet’s drawings and layout work seamlessly to present to young readers the harsh realities of the factories without being too scary. The pages showing an overhead view of the rows of workers crammed together, drops of blood on fabric, and a padlocked door are great examples of visuals and clear, direct text working together to help readers. On top of her hard work and long hours, Clara pushes herself by going to school at night. She just won’t quit! And she won’t accept the idea that she and her fellow workers have to be treated so poorly. Clara begins to talk with other workers, men and women, about organizing a union and striking to get better working conditions and pay. When she convinces her coworkers to walk out or picket, she and the others are fired, arrested, and even beaten. But she is “uncrushable,” and her spirit is “shatterproof.” Clara knew that her cause needed something bigger—a gigantic strike of garment workers at hundreds of factories! In 1909, Clara helped to lead the “Uprising of 20,000” garment worker’s strike. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy, but Clara’s leadership, her grit, her uncrushable determination, and shatterproof spirit led to higher salaries, shortened workweeks, and safer factory conditions for workers in New York and across the country.

(These books will make a terrific twosome if used in tandem in your classroom. Clara and Anne’s lives, drives, and personalities have a great deal in common, so I’ll outline some ideas for their use as a duo, along with suggestions for their use as stand-alones.)

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview each book prior to sharing with students. I like to read picture books two to three times—I don’t want to miss anything! The illustrations in each deserve sharing as well. Miss Moore’s colorful folk-art scenes reflect both her small town background and her life in big-city America at the turn of the century. Brave Girl’s blend of watercolors with images of ledgers, paychecks, dress patterns, and close-ups of bits of fabrics stitched across the page help to bring Clara’s factory world and the working world of immigrants to life. Using a document camera will help students absorb the images and make clearer connections to the texts.

2. Background. Each of these books provides enough historical background and context to ease students into the lives of these historical figures. It might be helpful to locate New York City on a map and then find out what your students may know about the city—Big Apple, Yankees, Knicks, Broadway, Statue of Liberty, etc. Why was New York such a magnet for so many people near the turn of the century?

3. Personal connection. Miss Moore Thought Otherwise—With this book, encourage students to talk about their library experiences, both at school and at public libraries. What do they like to do at the library? How many of your students have a library card for their local public library? (At the Beaverton City Library, there is no minimum age for a card—kids can get a card whenever parents/guardians decide they are ready.) Have them imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t check out or even touch the books. What if only their parents could go inside? How would they feel if there were only books for boys/girls?

Brave Girl—The factory where Clara worked made women’s clothing, and the majority of the workers were young women themselves, some as young as six. What do your students know about how and where their own clothing is made? Have any of them ever had a “job?” What have they done to earn money for themselves?  One of the issues Clara fought against were the “rules” of her workplace—how much she was paid, what would happen if she were late to work or bled on the material, the amount of time for her lunch break, etc. Have your students discuss the rules of their worlds—home, school, classroom, or playground. Are there any rules they believe are unfair?  Have they ever worked to change a rule at home or school? Have you or any of your students ever stood up for something of personal importance?

4. Topic/Message. Each of these books is a biography, where readers are given a behind the scenes look into the life of a person who may be new to them.  Beyond when they were born and where they lived, what do your students believe the authors really want readers to remember about these two women? Why do you and your students think the authors picked Anne Carroll Moore and Clara Lemlich to write about?

5. Persuasive writing. Both Clara and Anne worked to change the beliefs and attitudes of people who disagreed with them to make their worlds better places for themselves and others. How did each of them do it? Think back to the discussion of the rules that govern their worlds of home and school. Have students select a rule they would like to change, describe their positions, and then plan how they would make their cases and persuade those in charge. (It might help to have them think, “What would Anne/Clara do? to convince someone on the other side of their argument.)  It would be both fun and useful with younger students to do a little acting/role playing with each side of their issues. In persuasive writing, it’s important to understand both sides of the argument and anticipate counter arguments.

6. Genre. The Common Core Standards divide writing into three broad genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. Into which category do authors Markel and Pinborough’s books seem to belong?  Biographies, if done well, are probably a blend of all three. They are informational—providing facts and a sense of a timeline—but also tell the story (narrative) of a person’s life, giving readers a way to connect as they try to persuade us about the importance of the subject’s accomplishments or contributions—thankfully. Without the narrative elements, these books could end up being a list of dry facts. Have your students try writing/talking about Anne or Clara as if their lives were a story—Once upon a time there was brave young girl who came to America with her family…See how much information they are able to remember and include.

7. Informational writing.  The causes that Anne Carroll Moore and Clara Lemlich made the focus of their lives remain in the headlines today. In many cities today, public libraries have been closed or have limited hours/services due to funding problems. And many schools (including where I live) have made the tough choices to cut back on librarians and library services in the face of severe budget reductions. Working conditions and fair/equal pay continue to be issues for workers in the United States and around the world.  Invite students to choose one topic for further exploration, either as a class, small groups, or individually, depending on age. Ask them to research and write about their selected topics or create a short play/speech/public service announcement to help bring the issue to life. The bibliography of Brave Girl is divided between general and primary sources. This distinction may be one you wish to explore with your students. What is the difference? Are there certain topics/genres where primary sources are essential? Have them find bibliographies in other books. How many sources were used? What kinds of sources—the Internet, books, interviews, film, etc.—were used? Why is it always important to use more than one source and kind of research in informational writing?

9. Comparison/Contrast. Used together, these two books make ideal choices for introducing or expanding the concept of comparing and contrasting. Have students help you create a T-chart for a closer look at Anne and Clara in terms of their backgrounds, education, family, etc. As you discuss your chart, help students look closely for similarities and discern differences. You could even help your students create sentences/structures that help them express their findings, especially if the sentence structures involve elements (conjunctions, internal punctuation, etc.) that are new to them:

Examples

Both Clara and Anne lived in New York City.

Although each of the young women worked for their causes, Clara often faced physical danger and arrest.

10. Reviews. Anne Carroll Moore was determined to stock libraries with not just books for kids, but great books for young readers. She created lists of recommended books for libraries and wrote reviews of books in newspapers and journals to make sure that quality books were being published. Anne also invited authors and illustrators to visit her libraries to meet face to face with their readers. Your students could create their own lists of recommended books, do book talks about their favorites, and even role-play and answer questions as a favorite author. Share some book reviews with your students as models for their own reviews of new (or new to them) books.

11. Voice/Dialogue/Sentence Fluency. The Common Core Standards aren’t as clear about the writing trait of voice as I would be in my own classroom. Where they do emphasize some important components of voice—writers choosing an appropriate style in consideration of both audience and purpose—I think they neglect the developmental nature of the concept of voice. Younger writers need help understanding that voice comes from a focused idea, being an “expert” on your topic, making sure your thoughts make sense and are organized, choosing words that paint pictures for readers, building sentences that flow, and knowing your audience. It’s a nurturing process that involves all the traits and lots of strong models, like the two books being discussed here, and goes all the way back to number one on this list—reading the book aloud. I think it would be fun with these two books to “hear” the voices of their subjects, Anne and Clara. What if these two historical figures met? What would they talk about? What would each person’s voice sound like? If you created the T-chart suggested in number nine, you could use it to help students write some conversational dialogue. What can you and your students do to make sure each young woman has her own voice? Does their conversation sound like real people speaking? These could be read aloud, recorded like a radio interview, or even filmed.

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Anne Carroll Moore                         Clara Lemlich

12. Word Choice. Work with your students to develop lists of key/important words used by each author as they describe their subjects or tell each person’s story. Discuss what it means to think “otherwise,” a phrase used not only in the title, but also at important moments for Anne throughout the book. What does author Markel mean when she says that Clara has “grit” or is “uncrushable?” Pay close attention to the verbs each author chooses. For example, here are a few of the verbs chosen by author Jan Pinborough as she tells Miss Moore’s story—trusted, created, persuaded, pushed, pulled, wrote, encouraged. What do these choices tell us about Miss Moore? Look carefully at these choices from Brave Girllocked, bend, hurry, hiss, crammed, bleed, fired. What does the author want us to know about Clara’s working life?

13. For additional information. The authors each provide a More About… section focusing on their subjects, time periods, and issues, along with a bibliography for further research. For older students looking for a connection to Brave Girl, check out the November 30, 2011 post about Albert Marrin’s book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap: the Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. The National Women’s History Project site, nwhp.org, is another good resource for more information about Women’s History MonthAnd to discover more about the authors and illustrators:

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

janpinborough.com

debbyatwell.com

 Brave Girl

michellemarkel.com

melissasweet.net

Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Next up, Vicki reviews Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, a 2013 Newbery contender with an important message about kindness. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-379-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

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

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

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

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

In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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