Tag Archive: Jeff Hicks


Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. 2016. Afterword by Martha White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Biographic chapter book

Levels: Like White’s own work, this book speaks to virtually all ages. It is written for mid-elementary and up, but the illustrations will make it appealing even to very young readers, and the details will intrigue everyone, including adults.

Features: Irresistible illustrations in Melissa Sweet’s inimitable style; carefully selected family photos; telling and fascinating examples of White’s original handwritten drafts showing his notes and revisions; exceptionally thorough timeline, complete with book covers and other illustrations; a touching Afterword by White’s granddaughter Martha; revealing author’s notes from Melissa Sweet, detailing her hands-on research for the book; bibliography and index.

 some-writer

Overview

“I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since” (1). This opening line from Melissa Sweet’s reverent and captivating look at the life of beloved author E. B. White touched a nerve. I too grew up loving the sound of a manual typewriter. My father, a court reporter, typed his own depositions until he could afford a stenographer (that, eventually, became my first job). When he replaced his old Remington, he gave it to me. I was about seven. And though I didn’t type very fast at first, I was enchanted by the way this machine transformed the look of my letters and stories. Of course, electric typewriters and computers came along and made everything easier. But only someone who has hammered out copy on an old Remington or Royal or Corona can appreciate how nostalgic the very sight of a typewritten letter makes us old-time writers feel. You don’t have to love typewriters, however, to appreciate Sweet’s book. It’s one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.

From cover to cover, Some Writer! is positively gorgeous. Before I could settle down enough to read, I leafed through it several times, just soaking in the beauty. Sweet is a gifted, highly original artist, and her work is showcased here with a brilliant layout. It’s like walking through a literary garden. Pages feature a mix of Sweet’s endearing and folksy style, together with handwritten copy, Garth Williams’ charming and often hilarious drawings of the famous spider Charlotte, irresistible family photos—the kind you’d frame if they were yours—and a delightful blend of modern fonts with the occasional letter or memorable quotation written in the quirky, irregular type of the old Corona.

The text itself, minus the writer’s notes and other extras at the end, runs just over 130 pages, and they speed by. This book is everything you want a biography to be: not a stiff march through a dry fact-encumbered history, but an intimate peek into the everyday doings of someone we already love through his work. In one delightful anecdote, we discover that the White family thought of themselves as “city people,” but spent summers at Belgrade Lakes in New York, where Elwyn’s father rented two cabins. “The brothers,” Sweet tells us, “studied tortoises, tadpoles, and toads.” Regardless of weather, the whole family would crowd into the small skiff they named Jesse (after White’s water-fearing mother) and head for town. There, Elwyn’s father would buy a case of Moxie soda, “assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular as Moxie” (10). Little details like this—White’s father viewing Coca-Cola as the newfangled drink—make us feel as close to Elwyn as if we were attending a family picnic at the lake.

Other vignettes reveal that White was a good student, an avid reader, a musician (of sorts), a painfully shy person (something that remained true into his adult years), a lover of animals big and small, and a self-styled adventurer who loved hiking through the woods or getting out on the water. He began writing at a young age, winning his first literary award before he was ten (20). For years, White had his heart set on attending Cornell, but upon graduating from high school, felt it was his duty to join the Service and fight in World War I. Perhaps it’s lucky for us that the Army rejected him: he was too thin. So—on to Cornell, where he would acquire his life-long nickname Andy, and meet Professor William Strunk, Jr. We all know how that turned out.

To anyone who knew how shy White was, it was no surprise that the only thing he feared more than public speaking was talking to girls—they “terrified him” (19). That all changed, however, when he met Katharine Sergeant Angell. Katharine already had two children from another marriage, but she and White would welcome a third, Joel (called “Joe”), the light of White’s life. He would say at one point, “To a writer, a child is an alibi. If I should never in all my years write anything worth reading, I can always explain that by pointing to my child” (50). Within a short time, he would never need an alibi again.

Reading this book is a supremely joyful experience—one that no fan of E. B. White should miss. Every page brings another delightful discovery. Through Sweet’s words, White emerges as a deeply good person, someone who cared both about people and about the earth itself. He was humble and optimistic, surely two rare qualities these days. And though an indisputable genius, White never craved or sought attention in any form; he was genuinely happy on the farm. He loved children, and admired them for the right reasons—for their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity. White once wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around” (128). We don’t need to dig far. That voice that calls to us from the pages of Charlotte’s Web is no put-on; that’s E. B. White himself, as open and honest as the sky. When we lose a writer like White, the books remain as reminders and clues to that person’s innermost mind and heart. No wonder we treasure them. Sweet’s touching tribute makes a fine addition to an already unique collection.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. You may want to read Some Writer! more than once before sharing it with students. The text is so rich with detail that you simply can’t take it all in at once, and the illustrations add much to both the information and the voice. Looking at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that the book is divided into thirteen chapters, and one chapter is probably enough to share aloud at one time, or to discuss with a small group. Be sure to use a document projector so students do not miss even the tiniest feature of Sweet’s incredible paintings and sketches.

charlottes-web2

Background. Are your students familiar with E. B. White’s books? Some may have heard Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little read at home or school, or perhaps read these books on their own. Talk about what they know now and how they feel about E. B. White’s books. Are any familiar with the book titled The Elements of Style? Show them the books if you have copies. If some or most of your students have not read at least one of White’s books, you may want to choose one to share aloud prior to discussing the biography.

It’s also helpful to students—or any readers—to understand the time in which E. B. White lived. He was born into a very different world in 1899. Give the-elements-of-stylestudents time to do a little research to learn what life was like in those times. Who was president? What did people do for work—or entertainment? How many attended college? What modern conveniences or appliances did they have? What methods of transportation did they use?

William McKinley

William McKinley

 

typewriter4And by the way, what the heck is a typewriter? As I noted in my overview, the book opens with E. B. White expressing his love for the click of the typewriter keys. It would not be surprising if many of your students had no idea what a typewriter is. If you have access to one, bring it into class and let students type on it to feel the effort those keystrokes require compared to today’s turbo-charged keyboards! They may be surprised! Also note how different the print itself looks. It’s not sleek and modern. It’s bumpy and uneven, sometimes blurry in spots. And writers in White’s time could not choose from hundreds of fonts, something we take for granted today. How would it seem to produce important work like a book on this sort of machine? How long would it take—and what if you made a mistake? Could people type 100-120 words a minute on this primitive device? Answer: They could—and did!typewriter3

 

Format and genre. This is a biography, something different from an autobiography or memoir. Help your students feel comfortable with these slightly different, but related terms. A biography can be described as an account of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is an account of someone’s life written by the person him- or herself. A memoir is an anecdotal narrative based on firsthand experience. Memoirs often focus on a particular period or periods in a person’s life, and so may or may not be as complete as an autobiography.

car-driven-in-1899Central message. The central message in any biography answers the question, What was ______ really like? Instead of addressing this question all at once at the end of the book, try asking it chapter by chapter as author Melissa Sweet slowly reveals more—and more—about her subject. You might keep a running list of characteristics that describe E. B. White, adding to it as you go. By the way, notice the chapter titles. They’re creative, don’t you think? Do they also provide us with clues about each chapter’s content—and consequently, about White himself? Consider the importance of such clues to a reader. Would chapter titles or subtitles be something your students could use in their own writing to guide readers through a story or discussion?

Showing, not telling. If writing teachers have a favorite mantra, it’s “show, don’t tell.” Yet few things are more difficult to teach than this concept. Look for passages that show us something about E. B. White and his experiences without telling us outright. Consider this passage about a time Elwyn read a poem aloud from a stage in his school:

It had the line Footprints on the sands of time, but Elwyn’s words came out the tands of sime. Other kids started laughing and the moment on stage became even worse than En had imagined it would be. He could not finish. He vowed never to go up on a stage again. (3)

What is the author trying to show us about Elwyn in this passage?

A word about names . . . Notice, by the way, that E. B. White is called “En” here. Throughout his life, he goes by several different names. Have you or any of your students had this experience? Talk about what it is like to have more than one first name or nickname. Should a person be able to choose a favorite? Does E. B. White eventually do this?

Illustrations—and voice. As you go through the book notice the many forms illustrations take, and talk about the “flavor” they give to the narrative. Here are just a few examples:

  • Photographs
  • Paintings by author/illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Cartoons
  • Quotations
  • Drawings by E. B. White
  • Handwritten and typed text

Do the illustrations contribute to the voice of this particular book? In what way? What sort of voice do your students hear in this book? Boisterous? Quiet? Conversational? Comedic? Authoritative? Reverent? Or something else . . .

Do your students find the mix of illustrations (paintings, photos, etc.) appealing? Why? Have they considered mixing different types of illustrations in any of their own written work?

Thinking small. Choosing a topic can be one of the most challenging issues a writer faces. At one point, E. B. White confesses that he finds it satisfying to write about “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart” (37). Your students might feel the same way.

Get them started by modeling the brainstorming and selection of small topics. It’s easy—and your students will love it! Here are a few topics I would list as students look on (and yes, my list changes all the time, and by the time you read this, I’ll have half a dozen new ones I haven’t thought of yet):

  • BIG snow—and having too much of a good thing!img_2902
  • Tips for making really good scones
  • Relearning bridge—what’s fun, what’s hard
  • How birds stay alive in winter
  • How to look better at bowling than you are
  • Keeping in touch with friends far away
  • What I love about Tana French mysteries
  • Why sitcom laugh tracks are annoying
  • How long to keep leftovers before you can pitch them without guilt
  • Times when it’s simply NOT all right to look at your iPhone

These are little things on my mind right now. Your list won’t look anything like this—naturally. That’s the point. Topic lists are personal because as E. B. White discovered, we do our best writing about things close to our heart.

After modeling your list, break students into small groups and have each group come up with their “top 12 topics.” Share these aloud, then post them. Students can copy favorites into writing journals for later reference.

Where do you get your ideas? This question is a favorite one among students, especially those who have a chance to talk with a published author. Many writers will answer that they do not actually go in search of ideas; rather, ideas come to them—right out of own lives. This is definitely true for E. B. White. Where did White get the idea to write Charlotte’s Web? What about Stuart Little? Be sure students listen carefully for answers to these questions.

The significance of place. We don’t necessarily think of White’s writing as being about “place” per se, but in each of White’s books, setting plays a vital role. Read the description of the barn that opens Chapter 3 of Charlotte’s Web. You’ll see (and feel) at once how critical this setting is to the story that follows. (Note that White almost began the book with this description.) Share this passage aloud with your students. Ask what details they notice and how those details make them feel. What senses does White appeal to in this passage?

In one of the book’s most profound quotations (53), E. B. White tells us he can’t find words to explain what comes over him when he crosses the state line into Maine (the place where, as a boy, he spent summers with his family)—it’s “the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” Have your students experienced a place that affected them so deeply? Have you? Talk about this. Such places can range from a homey kitchen to an open prairie, from an apartment balcony to a corner coffee shop, bookstore, beach, bridge, attic, treehouse, lake-side hideaway, or anywhere your feet or mind can take you. Discuss one or two places that have had an emotional impact on you. Then give students a chance to come up with one or two of their own, talking with partners to generate ideas. Ask them to pick one place that stands out, and write about it. Remind them that places without names—like the barn from Charlotte’s Web—often make the best choices.the-trumpet-of-the-swan

Crafting an Argument: Book Reviews. On pages 68 through 74, Sweet recounts the striking differences between critics’ responses to Stuart Little and students’ responses. Critics were not universally enthusiastic, and some even considered the book inappropriate for school libraries. Children loved it, however, and bombarded White with personal letters that he treasured.

stuart-little2Your students may not agree with the critics about their favorite books, either. Have them search out online reviews for any book they like, checking to see if critics and other readers agree with their point of view. If not, have students write a one-page review, defending their position and including one or two quotations from the book to support their thinking. Consider publishing some reviews online. As an alternative, have students write directly to the author. If you cannot find an online POB or email address, you can reach any author by sending a letter in care of the publisher.

Revising leads. Among the most fascinating parts of Some Writer! is the history of how White struggled to find the most effective opening for Charlotte’s Web. From pages 86 through 92, we learn that he wrote many leads over a period of several months. Share this section aloud with students so they can appreciate how different these leads are—and how hard White worked to get this part right. Notice that he doesn’t just revise the wording. The whole setting and perspective changes from one revision to the next. White began with a very direct lead about Charlotte, then moved to Wilbur, then to the barn itself, and on to Mr. Arable. The lead he settled on for the final draft ranks as one of the strongest in literature. It’s both engaging—and startling. Read it aloud to see if your students agree. Compare the leads (paying close attention to the captions at the bottom of each page), and talk about what changes from one to another, and which lead your students feel works best. What exactly gives a lead the power to capture us as readers?

After discussing White’s examples, have students look for favorite leads from books they love, and read them aloud for the class. Then ask them to review a lead from their own writing and revise it at least twice. Encourage them to make bold changes of the sort E. B. White made to his own writing. Instead of simply changing a word or two, ask them to make each revision distinctly different from all others. When they finish, have them share their three versions with a partner or in a small writing group, and discuss which ones work best—and why.

The nature of revision. In school, we often practice revision as a one-time event. Students write a piece, then at some point revise it—and it’s finished. But clearly for E. B. White, as for nearly all professional writers, revision requires ongoing and repeated efforts, often over a long stretch of time. What does this difference tell us about the true nature of revision? Should this have an impact on the way we teach writing? Discuss this with students.

Hands-on research.  In the first part of Chapter 9, we discover how E. B. White learned about spiders. He spent over a year watching them. At one point, he actually kept eggs in a box, waited for the young spiders to hatch, and tracked their first movements. How many writers would take time for all this? And yet, consider how important this hands-on research was to Charlotte’s Web. What if White had tried to write the book without knowing any more about spiders than most of us know?

In addition to the information from Chapter 9, share Sweet’s “Author’s Note” on pages 135-136 aloud with your students. Did Sweet do some hands-on research of her own for this book? Talk about how this form of research differs from looking topics up in books or on the Internet. What makes firsthand research so valuable?

Have your students done any firsthand research of their own? If not, this could be a good time to start! As a class, choose a topic: raising chickens, yoga, hiking, cooking the perfect omelet—anything. Discuss ways a writer can learn about a topic in a personal way—a site visit, interview, observation, etc. Ask students to include at least one form of personal hands-on research next time they are gathering information for a nonfiction piece.

 Writing down to children. On page 130, the author quotes E. B. White’s strong views about never writing down to children. Share this paragraph aloud. Then have students write a personal response. Ask volunteers to share their responses. How do your students feel about the point White makes here? What exactly does “writing down” mean, and can your students identify any authors who do this? Why is it important for an author to respect his or her audience—or to think about them at all?

the-story-of-charlottes-web-michael-simsA Final Note . . . For more information on E. B. White’s writing process, see The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. 2011. New York: Walker and Company.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author . . .

Writer and illustrator Melissa Sweet lives with her family on the coast of Maine, near E. B. White’s former home. She has illustrated more than eighty children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor books The Right Word and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, both written by Jen Bryant. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards. She also wrote and illustrated Tupelo Rides the Rails; Carmine: A Little More Red, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Balloons Over Broadway, a picture book biography that won the Sibert Medal and was named a 2011 Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Picture Book. When she is not in her studio, Melissa can be found taking an art class, hiking with her dogs, or riding her bicycle.

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway

A River of Words

A River of Words

Of her field research, Melissa said this in a 2014 interview: “When I set out, I travel with a small studio: camera, sketchbook, pens and pencils. But oftentimes I get somewhere and it’s more about taking time to soak up what I’m seeing without being too diligent about recording it. The impressions of a place or archival material can be as inspiring as the meticulous details.”

To read more of this fascinating interview, check out www.artofthepicturebook.com  You can also visit Melissa at www.melissasweet.net

Author Sneed Collard

Author Sneed Collard

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Great news! Our book is a reality! Teaching Nonfiction Revision is currently in production with Heinemann, and my wonderful co-author Sneed B. Collard and I are eagerly awaiting release—tentatively scheduled for early fall. This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional writer—Sneed. For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Fire Birds

Fire Birds

In our new book, Sneed details his tips and strategies for revising nonfiction both concisely and effectively. He’s a seasoned, imaginative writer who knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. He’s also enormously fun to work with. (I have a rule: Never work with someone who has no sense of humor. Sooner or later, you always regret it.)

 

My part as co-author has been to translate Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons that teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. If you teach nonfiction writing, Sneed and I are confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable (not to mention outrageously fun to read) addition to your professional collection. And by the way, my colleague and fellow guru Jeff Hicks has promised to review the book in a future post, and we cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you so much, Jeff! We’ll have more information on the release date as soon as we know it.

 

Just-for-Fun Book Recommendation: Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Books for Living

Books for Living

I have a simple way of determining how good a film is: Even before it’s over, I know I’ll watch it again. I judge books the same way. Admittedly, I don’t always read the whole book when I return, but I do return, and that’s the point. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe is one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. Because it’s supremely well written, because it’s a profound, heartfelt and often funny (at times deeply touching) look at the meaning of life, and because author Will Schwalbe responds to some of my own favorite books, including The Girl on the Train, David Copperfield, Wonder, Gift from the Sea, 1984, Song of Solomon, and—one that influenced me immeasurably—Bird by Bird.

Each chapter focuses on one book—26 in all—and how that book affected Schwalbe or shaped his view of bird-by-birdlife. In addition, each chapter has a theme, inspired by the chosen book. Schwalbe is quick to point out in his introduction that not all the books are his personal favorites, nor would they necessarily make the “greatest books of all time” list:

What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. (17)

He adds that any reader can make a list like this, and he recommends it because “it’s a path to creating your own personal philosophy” (18).

just-take-it-bird-by-birdI couldn’t help noticing what a radical and refreshing departure this is from the usual book reports we so often ask students to do. Why, I thought, couldn’t students take this same approach, writing about books that have moved them deeply and made a difference in how they see things—or books that have helped them navigate a troubled time? Read a selected chapter or two from Books for Living aloud, and I can almost guarantee that your students will want to do this very thing. Of course, this is a wide open prairie-without-fences approach to reading—and writing. Instead of defining those books that we think students should find meaningful, we let them decide that on their own. Maybe that’s wiser than we think, though. As Schwalbe reminds us, the idea that there is a “Ginsu knife” book—the book that can be all things to everyone—is a myth. What is true, however, is that there’s always a Ginsu knife book for each of us for a particular time and situation.

By the way, one of the books Schwalbe discusses is Stuart Little. I highly recommend reading this chapter aloud in conjunction with discussing Melissa Sweet’s book Some Writer! It not only captures the complexity of Stuart’s character, but more important, shows why E. B. White’s work is not only timeless, but also reaches an impressively wide range of readers, from five to ninety five. You’ll love Schwalbe’s book, and I’m betting you’ll want to create, along with your students, a similar book of your own.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

woodward-vickijeff3249a

drowned-city

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown. 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

Levels: Aimed at middle school and up, but a riveting resource for interested readers of all ages, including both younger children and adults.

Features: Striking graphic illustrations, easy to read text, expansive resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water.” That’s the first line on the dust jacket—and will give you a hint about how much you can learn from this highly readable, impressively researched historical narrative.

The story opens with how Katrina began, as a tiny, “unremarkable” wind in Africa. We follow Katrina across the Atlantic as she grows large enough to be given a name, and then powerful enough to ignite terror. In the first half of the book, we witness the 1.2 million citizens of New Orleans receiving news of the approaching storm, then preparing to evacuate—or unbelievably, to stay. It feels as if we’re right there with them as they wait in apprehension, huddling within structures that will be no match for what’s coming. We see them frantically struggle to protect their children, pry victims from sinking cars, and finally—in shocking numbers—lose their homes, belongings, pets, and loved ones. Battling a world that’s become surreal, more than fourteen hundred people die, some overwhelmed by the storm surge, others racing to escape rising floods, a few trapped in attics without tools to break through their own roofs.

The second half of the book depicts rescue efforts on all levels—from federal down to individual. Brown honestly portrays the poorly coordinated government efforts to provide shelter and help to people who have lost everything. Stranded citizens cling to rooftops and floating debris hoping that someone with a boat will miraculously head their way. For too many, that doesn’t happen. Constantly wet and shut off from all communication, survivors find themselves without food, clean water, blankets, plumbing, electricity, medical help—or means of escape. They watch cars and houses float like toys down “rivers” that used to be familiar streets. In the convention center and superdome, where thousands eventually take shelter, conditions are abysmal: overcrowded and filthy, with no fresh air and often nowhere to sit but the floor.

In the face of all this despair, Brown reminds us, there is light. Hospitals do what they can. Coast Guard men and women hoist people from rooftops. The Red Cross opens over five hundred shelters across twelve states. Texas, Arkansas, and other states take in refugees, once they are able to leave the city. Even as rain thunders down, brave volunteers venture out in their own small boats. Some wade or swim through toxic flood waters, risking lethal infection, to save friends, neighbors—even strangers. They persist in the face of explosions, fires, snakes, and gunshots. Gradually, the storm subsides, and the deadly waters that drowned New Orleans seep away, inch by inch, leaving horrifying mounds of detritus in their wake.

At 91 quick pages—they fly by—the book is a dramatic and intense portrayal of what can happen when we are unprepared for the worst that nature can deal out. And when government agencies and officials fail to respond quickly despite evidence of abject suffering. In stunning contrast, though, the book also shines a welcome light upon the courage of everyday Americans who risk everything to save others. In his direct, unflinching style, Don Brown shows us America at its absolute worst—and best.

Drowned City, which marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, is a fitting, brilliantly written, visually stunning tribute to the people—residents, rescuers, and some who were both—that fought bravely against insurmountable odds. Though many evacuees never returned to New Orleans, it’s worth remembering that others continue to rebuild, even to this day.

drowned-city-2

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Drowned City is an ideal discussion book for a small reading group—or for the whole class if you have enough copies to share. Despite the length, it’s a quick read, but expect students to spend extra time studying the illustrations. You can also read it aloud with the aid of a document projector. This book MUST be seen, not just heard. If you share it this way, plan to spend several class periods because you do not want to rush. Invite comments as you go.

Background. Do your students have knowledge of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath? How many have heard of Katrina, and know when it struck and where? Do any of them know someone who was affected? This is a highly sensitive question, of course; but if any of your students have personal histories to share, their insights can greatly enrich your discussion.

If you live in Louisiana or a neighboring state, your students have likely heard many accounts relating to Katrina. For students who are not familiar with the facts or circumstances, however, it may be helpful to provide some factual background about hurricanes in general and their deadly power.

A check under “hurricane facts” online will lead you to such informational tidbits as

  • The wind speeds of hurricanes in categories 1 (weakest) through 5 (strongest)
  • The number of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last 100 years
  • The states most often struck by hurricanes
  • Dates of the hurricane “season” on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  • Origin of the word “hurricane”
  • How the tradition of naming hurricanes began
  • The forecasting of hurricanes
  • Meaning of related terms, such as “surge” . . .

 

. . . and much more. Such information will give students a deeper appreciation of the book.

Format and genre. The first thing you’re likely to notice about Drowned City is the format. It’s a graphic nonfiction history, a genre greatly appealing to many young readers. Over the past three decades, graphic novels and histories have grown immeasurably in popularity and attained an impressive level of sophistication. Language and art blend to recount events with a power neither could match on its own.

Brown has his own artistic style, simple and raw. The facial expressions, which he brilliantly depicts using only a few brush strokes, indelibly capture Katrina’s impact on people of the Gulf Coast. These are not photographs, but if they were, we’d be saying, “How did he manage to get that shot?” He seems to know precisely what to illustrate—and just what details will intrigue, touch or startle us. Before actually reading the text, leaf through a portion to give students a feel for the overall “look” of the document. What emotional response do the illustrations arouse—even before students hear the author’s words? How would your students describe Brown’s highly individual artistic approach?

Not comic books. Though they share some similarities, graphic novels and histories are not comic books. What is the difference, though? Look at them side by side, and discuss the similarities the two genres share—and any differences you identify.

A footnote: In the publishing industry, books in this genre are typically called “graphic novels,” though the term can be somewhat confusing since novels are fiction and tend to be lengthy. This book is neither. Help students understand that “graphic novel” is a publishers’ term and quite different from “novel” as we usually think of it. The history of the graphic novel, by the way, makes a fine topic for informational research.

 

Color and mood. As you page through the book, notice the colors Brown chooses for his artwork. Ask students to reflect on the ways these colors influence the message and mood of the narrative. How does Brown want us as readers to feel? Also look for occasional hints of bright color. When and where do they appear—and what might they represent?

The big idea—or message. Every good nonfiction book has a big idea. Behind all the facts and anecdotes, there’s a message, something the author wants us to think about. As you share Drowned City, ask your students to think about the underlying message, or messages. There could be more than one. Talk about this as a class—or have students share their own thoughts in writing journals.

Organization. Unlike many books of comparable length, Drowned City is not divided into chapters. Yet it reads almost as if it were. It is easy to transition from one discussion to another. What organizational devices does author Don Brown use to keep us on track? Note that you may need to review the book more than one time to notice how he achieves this smooth topic-to-topic flow.

Following are some elements you may want to share with students once they’ve had a chance to express their own ideas about organizational structure:

 

  • Time: Time is a critical organizational device in this book, and with good reason. The people of New Orleans—and indeed people throughout the world—know the hurricane will strike long before it happens. This allows the author to take us through a period of tense anticipation, followed by the climax of the actual storm, and then an aftermath when many of the city’s most serious problems are just beginning. With respect to dates, the book opens in early August 2005 and rushes headlong toward the moment of crisis on August 29. Though the primary narrative concludes on October 2, when New Orleans is finally dry again, there’s also an epilogue on the final pages, a look back from the perspective of 2012.

 

  • Scene shifts: We move from place to place, and from one perspective to another. For example, we shift from Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, from the struggling victims swimming or clinging to rooftops to the rescuers in boats and helicopters, from the streets rapidly becoming rivers to the convention center and superdome, from the frantic chaos of New Orleans to the complacency of the White House. Such shifts give us a sweeping perspective on a complex catastrophe—like watching several films all at one time—and help us understand the multiple and simultaneous ways in which human lives changed when Katrina hit.

 

  • Pacing: With so much to tell, Brown has to keep things moving, and he does. In the half hour or so it takes to read and reflect on this book, he touches on numerous events, leaping quickly from one to another, helping us experience the frenzy the people of New Orleans must have felt. One moment we’re watching neighbors rescue one another from rooftops, and the next we’re standing in unbearable heat outside the convention center, waiting to board an over-crowded bus. By holding himself to a few lines for each scene, Brown covers an impressive amount of territory with a few words.

 

  • Lead and conclusion: I used to tell students that a good lead and conclusion are like bookends, holding details together. They work just that way in Brown’s book. He opens by telling us how inconspicuously a hurricane begins—it’s scarcely more than a small, seemingly innocent puff of wind. This surprises us, and compels us to read on, to find out how a small gust of air becomes a force of death. The conclusion is equally striking. We learn that many people have, remarkably, survived this wretched bout with nature, and it’s a testament to human endurance.

 

 

Voice. This book resounds with voice. It’s powerful, but controlled. There’s enough tension that Brown doesn’t need to embellish anything. He lets the facts speak for themselves. He is present on every page, though, present in the details he shares, the illustrations he creates to enhance them, and the words he chooses to engage us: Hurricane Katrina “crashes” ashore just post-dawn on August 29 and “erases” the town of Buras, Louisiana. Later, when the electricity goes out, night “swallows” New Orleans, and the next day people “melt” at an overcrowded convention center where it’s hard to breathe and the air reeks of human waste. On every page, we remain in touch with human panic, despair, and frustration. Occasionally, the people of New Orleans speak to us, and their words are authentic. As Brown’s source list shows us, he has pulled his quotations directly from books and news accounts of the disaster. They’re real, not invented, and we can feel the difference. In one scene, a mother stranded on a rooftop hugs her child and says simply, “Oh, baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it” (from Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, 2008, 10).

Personal response. Some of us identify with books like this because we have been through a similar situation or know someone who has—or because the author’s writing causes us to empathize with the characters. After reading the book, but before discussing it in depth, give students a chance to express their own feelings in writing. They may also wish to share these responses in small writing groups of three or four students.

Choosing facts wisely. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book like this is deciding what to tell—and what to leave out. Have a look at the bibliography, page 95, and share some of the sources with students. Talk about the kinds of sources Brown relies on, and the breadth of his research. Are students surprised to learn that for a book this length a writer would conduct such extensive research?

Ask them to imagine the notes and facts Brown must have collected as he investigated Katrina. With such an overwhelming amount of information at hand, how does an author decide which facts to share—and which to simply abandon?

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

First, ask students what they learn from the book. What information is new to them? Were there surprises? Are there facts or anecdotes they will not readily forget?

Second, go through the book slowly, looking for the most striking details, those that stand out or go beyond what we might hear in nightly news accounts. For example, check out page 41, which shows people in their own boats dodging swarms of cockroaches or “knots” of poisonous snakes. What other details make a similarly striking impression?

In discussing factual highlights that capture your students’ attention, talk about the criteria that nonfiction writers—including your students—should use in selecting details to share with readers. List some of those criteria and have students refer to them as they research and write nonfiction pieces of their own.

Drafting an argument. Look again at the information Brown shares on pages 8 and 9. We learn that the people of New Orleans had a 24-hour warning to evacuate before the city was hit with a storm surge “twenty-five feet above normal.” Yet many chose to remain. By the time the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation, it was too late (10). Though some people had no means to escape—having neither a car nor money for any sort of transportation—many made a deliberate choice to stay. Was this right? What would your students do? Have them write about this, creating an argument based on the following—or a related topic of their own:

 

  • Are people in a danger zone obliged to evacuate if they can? Or should that decision be completely their own? Why?

 

One of the primary issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina is the role that government, local or federal, should play in protecting citizens from disaster—or rescuing them later. After sharing Brown’s book, talk about some of the things that went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Could the government have done more? After discussing this, have students formulate an argument based on this or a related topic:

 

  • What role should the government play in protecting citizens from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? And what, if anything, is a citizen’s own responsibility?

 

Further research. For additional information about Hurricane Katrina or the rebuilding effort, students can check online under New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and Army Corps of Engineers. Don Brown’s bibliography lists many useful sources. Your school, city, or county library can also suggest books or articles to help writers further their research. Numerous films are available as well, and you may wish to view one as a class (see “Films on Hurricane Katrina” for ideas). You may also want to consider interviewing someone with relevant knowledge or experience . . .

Conducting an interview. One good way to learn more about any topic is by interviewing someone with special knowledge. Sometimes a writer is lucky enough to arrange a personal interview—but if that is not possible, an interview via phone or email (or Skype) is the next best thing. Here are a few people your students might want to consult—and likely you can think of others:

 

  • A current or former resident of New Orleans with firsthand knowledge of Katrina
  • A relative or friend of such a person—or anyone knows the history of Katrina well
  • A local meteorologist with insights about current technology used in forecasting hurricanes
  • Someone with a background in conducting or managing rescue efforts—for example, a member of the Coast Guard, a firefighter, or an emergency medical specialist
  • An engineer who can discuss what towns or cities do these days to make themselves more flood-resistant
  • Anyone who has been part of an evacuation effort
  • A mayor or other official who can respond to questions about the role government plays in preventing or handling disasters
  • A journalist or writer who has researched or written about disasters such as Katrina

To learn more about setting up an interview, check on line under “How to Set Up a Phone Interview” or “How to Set Up an Email Interview.” Ahead of time, lay out the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. Give students a chance to practice their interviewing skills, with you playing the role of the “interviewee.” Remember to ask for permission to record the interview or to take photographs, should you want to do that.

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About Author Don Brown . . .

Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than two dozen picture book biographies and other history books for children. Throughout his career, Brown has introduced young readers to such well known figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Dolly Madison.

His books have also explored important events, including the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the sinking of the Titanic, and the duel of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. One of his most recent publications, America Is Under Attack, offers readers a sensitive look at the tragic events of September 11th.

Don’s books have received numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Horn Book Honor and the William Allen White Award. One of the author’s histories, The Great American Dustbowl, has been nominated for the Texas Blue Bonnet Award. Drowned City was published in August 2015 on the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and recently won the 2016 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, which recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing for children. Don Brown also makes presentations to students around the country. You can follow his work on www.booksbybrown.com

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for returning! We hope you had a wonderful summer, and squeezed in time for family, travel, pets, reading, hiking, or whatever creates the joy in your life. Speaking of pure, unadulterated joy . . . congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. Even if you’re not a fan—heck, even if you don’t like baseball all that much—you have to feel good about a team that finally, finally puts an end to a 108-year drought. And by the way, congratulations to Cleveland as well. The Chicago victory would not have been nearly so sweet had the Indians not played their hearts out and made all those score crushing homers and gravity defying catches. What a Series. In other news . . .

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders, and will soon, I am sure, have stories to share on his experiences.

In the meantime, I am searching out the very best in nonfiction books as background for a new book I’m writing—to be announced soon! Drowned City was to my mind one of the best nonfiction books for young readers that I’d come across in a while. I hope you like it as much as I did.

A quick, personal note . . . I saw a lovely middle school student interviewed on the morning news. She was writing a letter to her older self to be opened about ten years from now. It was a moving and thoughtful letter, filled with the kind of humor and wisdom that made me wish she lived right next door and would stop by and visit while I’m out gardening. The advice she gave to herself ran along these lines . . . Don’t be swayed by others. Trust yourself, your own mind, your own heart. I liked that. Behind her on the classroom wall was a six-trait poster. No implied connection whatsoever. Just a good moment.

Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff Hicks at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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Be a Better Writer, 2nd edition by Steve Peha, with Margot Carmichael Lester. 2016. Carrboro, NC: Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: Steve himself says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10 to 16,” but honestly, you can adapt ideas in this book for just about any grade level. It would make a terrific gift for kids heading to college—and I also recommend it as a resource for adult professional writers as well as for teachers or writing coaches.

Features: Easy to use lists, charts, and techniques for handy reference; writing samples to show what works and what doesn’t—and how revision unfolds; interviews with well-known writers who offer their wisdom and suggestions; numerous activities to use on your own or in the classroom from Day 1.

Introduction

I had a hunch I would like this book as soon as I saw the cover—and no, I don’t pay any attention to that old adage. Truth is, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. From this one with its bright colors, whimsical art, and encouraging little notes, I could tell I would be in the hands of someone who (1) probably has a sense of humor about his own writing, and (2) genuinely cares about helping writers of all ages, especially those who find writing difficult at times (and that’s most of us). Some professional resource book authors are so eager to dazzle us with their own genius that they forget how intimidating, how overwhelming writing can seem to readers. Authors with attitude always make me want to say, “Hey, pssst!! Remember us? Your audience?” After all, the underlying purpose of a resource like this should be to answer questions real writers, especially students, ask most: What should I write about? Where can I get ideas? How do I begin? How do I end? What’s a detail? How do I organize all this information I dug up in my research? Who the heck will read this and what do they care about? How do I make my writing sound more like me?

 This book answers every one of these questions, and countless others—and does so in a way that makes the information entertaining as well as easy to understand and recall. It’s not a lecture; it’s a conversation. What’s more, Steve Peha and his co-author Margot Carmichael Lester (who also happens to be Steve’s wife) have gone out of their way to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—tips on sequencing, ideas for good leads, sample endings, thoughts on transitions, guidelines for solid sentences, and more. The secret lies in the layout, which is masterful. Subheads in big—really big—print, charts, lists, and other eye catching features make it easy to take in and process volumes of information. Ever go into a store that seemed to have everything you wanted, all arranged right where you could find it? That’s how it feels to read Be a Better Writer.

The book is written right to students (or any readers looking for guidance on writing well) in a voice that’s friendly, often humorous, and always knowing. You can tell immediately that these are seasoned writers, that everything you struggle with they’ve struggled with, too. Steve is refreshingly honest about his own learning curve: “I know that for some of us, writing is hard. That’s how it was for me in school. I was good at math. I could read. But writing was a mystery, one I didn’t solve until I started helping other people solve it for themselves” (p. 4). Someone who’s fought his own writing demons gives good advice because he knows exactly what advice we’re most likely to need, from topic choice right down to dealing with those pesky commas. Steve and Margot know their stuff, and know how to make a book on writing fun to read. thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-with-background.jpg

I sat down with this book intending to read a sample chapter or two, and was immediately delighted to have the author tell me two things I never expected to hear: (1) You don’t have to read this whole book, and (2) You don’t have to read it in order. I don’t? Gee . . . It’s always a relief to get permission for something you were probably going to do anyway—like skim. While savoring this newfound freedom, I actually did read the whole book—all of it, in order, and in one sitting. Yes, it was that good. Yes, it was that engaging. And yes, you are going to love it, too.

 

Everything That Matters

Too many resource books try to cover everything. I have a few of those. They’re too big to lift, but ideal for door stops. This book thankfully takes a more discretionary approach. It concentrates, very effectively, on “what matters most.”

In the opening chapter, Steve gives us a stunning “world of writing” overview. He writes about logic, good beginnings, effective description, using easy techniques to get yourself moving when you’re stuck, applying the ingenious “what-why-how” strategy when writing an essay test, getting and using good feedback, and ways to know when you’re finished writing: in short, the “most important” issues writers encounter in their everyday lives. This big picture chapter provides the foundation for the enormously rich discussions that follow, but equally important, it offers a beginning writer assurance: Yes, you can do this. Even if you learn and use just three or four strategies from this book, Steve tells us, you’ll be a better writer. Three or four? you say to yourself—Heck, I can do that! Yes, you can, and now you’ve grasped the underlying theme of the book: making writing do-able, one strategy at a time.

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The Top 10. That first chapter and all others open with what is hands down my favorite feature: “10 Things You Need to Know Even If You Don’t Read This Chapter.” I’m certain—I’d bet on it—that you can name six writers right off the top of your head that you wish had used that approach. The “10 Things You Need to Know” opener works on so many levels. First, it gives me a quick preview of the upcoming chapter—which makes my reading infinitely more efficient. Second, it allows me to focus on the sub-topics I need most. And finally, it gives me a simple way to review later so I can recall key points or look something up.

Targeting good writing. Six of the other eight chapters cover topics that define the heart of good writing: “Better Topics,” “Better Ideas,” “Better Organization,” “Better Voice,” “Better Words,” and “Better Sentences.” The book doesn’t cover everything you ever wanted to know about conventions plus a few things you didn’t (just one more thing to love about it), but does offer excellent chapter on “Better Punctuation” that also includes an editorial nod to paragraphing and capitalization. Steve, with his characteristic sense of humor, has a good time showing how punctuation can alter meaning in even a short sentence like Herman Melville’s classic opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” (Think about it until you get your own copy; try punctuating it as many ways as you can.)

I cannot say whether this was intentional (and it doesn’t matter), but Be a Better Writer is extremely “trait friendly.” If you teach the six traits to your students, you will find this book filled with activities you can use for that purpose. But wait, there’s more . . .

The book also devotes a whole chapter to “Better Fiction,” so just in case you’re reading it not so much to teach writing as to get your own work published, here’s a chapter you’ll savor—and if you’re like me, it will have you rolling up your sleeves and revising in your head even before you finish reading it.

Organization Plus

The book is beautifully organized, and next to the confident, upbeat voice, this is the characteristic I appreciated most. The pacing is quick and lively, and chapters include recurring features that I quickly learned to look for, like these five:

Feature 1: Terrific checklists. Every chapter features an enormously useful checklist related to the subject at hand. For example, Chapter Two offers us “Your Checklist for Better Topics.” Like most writers, I am constantly in search of a good topic, so I devoured this list. Steve is particularly good at coming up with questions students can ask themselves and he embeds these into the checklist: “What ideas and details will encourage readers to follow my piece all the way to the end? What will make them feel like it was worth the time and effort they get to spend there?” (p. 35) Questions like these remind me that writing well requires us not only to think like readers but to offer our audience something in return for the gift of their time and commitment.

Feature 2: Samples—and lessons in modeling. Each chapter includes one or more writing examples, some written by Steve and many written by students. In this chapter, Steve uses a piece of his own writing, titled “My Father’s Gift,” to illustrate the difficulties inherent in “Tackling Tough Topics,” things that are just plain hard to write about because our emotions get in the way. He helps us understand how pushing ourselves into topics that make us uncomfortable forces us to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. Here’s a quick summary of Steve’s story:

Steve’s father, a man without a lot of money to spend, has given 10-year-old Steve a gift in a manila envelope, and waits eagerly for his son to open it. They are not close, and there’s a palpable tension between them. Days go by, and Steve still has not opened the gift, so has to lie when his father questions him about it. When he finally does look inside, he discovers that the envelope contains valuable photographs of his favorite team, the Washington Huskies. Even though he likes and appreciates the photos, he doesn’t safeguard them, nor does he fully acknowledge the value of the gift. Years later, needing to raise money in a hurry, he remembers the photos and decides to sell them—only to discover he has inadvertently sent them off with the trash while cleaning out his room. Realizing what he has done, and imagining how his father would react if he knew, sets off a chain of conflicting emotions that make this story of giving and receiving hard to resolve—but Steve writes a strong ending about “where giving and forgiving meet, and grace abides” (p. 52).

When I show teachers how to model writing, I encourage them to do something that doesn’t come easily to most: to think out loud, sharing the way writing unfolds in the writer’s mind. Students need to know why we begin or end a certain way, why we add a phrase or delete a word. Most teachers understand this instinctively, but somehow the act of actually sharing their thinking aloud with students feels awkward, and makes many self-conscious. That’s why I wanted to cheer when I finished the story and then read Steve’s description of his own writing process. It’s precisely the kind of sharing that helps kids understand how writing works: “I had an easy time with the beginning,” he reveals, “but it took many tries to write the ending” (p 35). He explains that he had to realize his story was about forgiveness before he could get the ending right. “When I was thinking only about the fact that my piece needed an ending, I wrote many endings, but never one that captured what I wanted to say because I hadn’t thought at all about what that was.”

There are two lessons here: One, an ending needs a message. And two, students learn so much by getting inside a working writer’s head. This book takes them there—to where the writing happens. I cannot think of another writing resource book that does this so well.

Feature 3: The Unexpected. Everyone loves surprises, and Be a Better Writer delivers. Though it has recurring features, it’s never formulaic. Chapter Two, for instance, includes a section that made me sit up and take notice: “Topic Choice When You Have No Choice.” Think “on-demand writing.”

Back in the day, when my writing assessment team and I were reading literally thousands of stories and essays for county, district, and state writing assessments, all of us wondered how it could be that though students were often writing to the very same prompt, some managed to make their writing irresistibly engaging, read-out-loud funny, or heart stoppingly moving, while others were clearly so bored it was a wonder they could push their pencils across the paper. The secret lies in learning to personalize a topic. How does a writer do that?

Try Steve’s “Topic Equation Strategy,” in which Interest + Subject = Topic. Without giving away too much of Steve’s thunder, let me say that this equation simply calls for coupling your assigned subject—say it’s climate change—with something that interests you, like whales, perhaps. Instead of writing in a broad brushstroke kind of way about climate change, you might ask, How is climate change affecting whales, and will they survive it? Will warming ocean waters disturb their migration cycle, and what will they eat if all the krill die? Now you have a topic that will keep both you and your readers awake. Solving a problem (e.g., the dreaded assigned topic) that has plagued students and teachers for generations is a stroke of genius, and for me, this solution alone makes the book worth its purchase price.

Feature 4: Interviews. Among the book’s most intriguing features are interviews with various writers of note who talk about how they became writers and offer advice to beginners in the craft. The authors chose their interviewees well; each has something memorable to say. Among my favorite moments are these lines from Luis J. Rodriguez, known for his books of memoir, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Asked why he writes, Rodriguez says, “To heal. To dance. To wake up something beastly as well as something beautiful. I write to stay alive.”

Feature 5: Activities, activities. All chapters wrap up with a list of activities you can try (as a student, or as a teacher/coach working with students), and they range from easy to challenging, quick to extended. Sometimes Steve invites us to journal a character or try transforming a telling statement to a showing one, and other times we’re asked to write a letter, experiment with organization, collect beginnings and endings, or write a piece in a whole new voice. What makes these activities so authentic and appealing is that they’re things Steve himself has tried as a writer. And as he reminds us at the beginning of the book, we do not have to do all the activities. We can pick and choose. But this is guaranteed: If we do enough of them, our writing will improve.

Miss Margot’s Role

Co-author Margot Carmichael Lester is a journalist and author. She offers her journalist’s perspective throughout the book, and it’s a great balance because by her own admission, she leans toward nonfiction and opinion writing. Like all good journalists, she knows the value of writing concisely and cutting what isn’t needed. Though she offers us many good pieces of advice throughout the book, I think this one has to be my favorite: “When I have too many details, I re-evaluate them. If a detail doesn’t support the main idea, it’s out. If it doesn’t lead people to think feel, or do what I want them to, it’s gone. If it doesn’t answer a critical question or objection from the reader, it’s toast.” I love a ruthless editor, and ruthlessness is a quality more students need to cultivate as writers. Hack away, Miss Margot (p. 73).

Hidden Gems

You may have noticed that you can always tell which resource books were worth your while because the best ones are eventually filled with highlighted passages and raggedy sticky notes. That’s because readers have highlighted, circled, underlined, and commented on the book’s hidden gems, little bits of wisdom that aren’t paraded before us in any obvious way, but just wait there tucked inside the folds of text, waiting to be discovered. Here are just a handful of the quotable moments I noticed while reading Be a Better Writer. Have a highlighter and pencil handy when you read your own copy because you will find many more moments like these:

  1.  “The key to descriptive writing is making a picture in your mind and using words and phrases that help readers make the same picture in theirs” (p. 11).
  2. “Getting feedback isn’t just finding out why some people like your writing and others don’t. It’s about getting precise information about how to improve your work” (p. 27).
  3. “Life experience is the greatest source of topic ideas you’ll ever have” (p. 33).
  4. “Think of your teachers as editors” (p. 36).
  5. “If you’re like many writers, you’ll come back to the same topics again and again” (p. 57).
  6. “Voice is the most important quality in your work because it influences all of the other qualities” (p. 157).
  7. “Draft like you talk and revise like you read” (p. 189)

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Not surprisingly, Be a Better Writer has enjoyed overwhelming popularity since its release. If you’d like a copy of your own or want more information, here are some links that will help:

 To get the book on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

http://bit.ly/babw-free-ch1

To see Steve’s newsletter:

http://bit.ly/steve-peha-newsletter

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon-author-page

Steve and Margot are offering a huge discount (40%) thru June 30 for schools ordering 25+ copies by PO.

http://bit.ly/babw-po-discount

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Jeff and I say goodbye for the summer–just for the summer!!

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We have gained many new fans over recent months, and we have you to thank! Like many of you, Jeff and I are going to take a summer break to do some traveling and spend time with our families. We will return in the fall with more reviews and thoughts about teaching writing well. Writing isn’t just our occupation—it’s our passion. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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I know that the end of another school year is just around the corner—I’m sure that none of you are counting the days. You’re all too busy teaching your fingers to the bone, keeping students engaged, focused, and learning, squeezing the most out of the last weeks (or days) of school. Soon, very soon, your mind will be able to shake itself loose from teacher mode. Thoughts of summer, carefree relaxation with an icy beverage or two will take over and you’ll begin the important process of recharging your professional batteries, gulping it in like an all-electric vehicle at a charging station. But we all know that it’s possible, after the initial phase of summer’s mind-scrubbing decompression, because of who you are—a reflective professional—that you might permit a few thoughts of August and September to creep in and get you thinking about next year. To make sure you are ready for that moment, I’m going to recommend an excellent writing contest for your next batch of students and a few book ideas (to read aloud or recommend to students) for your post-murder mystery/romance/spy thriller summer reading. After all, you’re a teacher! You know you can’t block it out for very long. Admit it–it’s who you are. It’s how you roll.

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Writing Contest—Letters About Literature: Read. Be inspired. Write Back

Once I discovered this contest years ago, I never missed getting my students involved. It’s sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. You can find all you need to know about how to enter and important deadlines at: www.read.gov/letters/ Here’s a sample from the website to give you the basics—“Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem, or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.”

The letters students write for this contest are not the typical fan letters students often write to favorite authors where they ask the writer questions—Where did you get the idea for this book? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you think there will ever be a movie bout your book? The purpose of these letters is to talk directly to authors—reader to writer—to let them know how a book impacted the reader’s life—how the book got inside the reader’s head and heart, how it may have changed some aspect of their life. Here are example letters from two of my former students, both eighth graders. (The judging categories are Level I—grades 4-6, Level II—grades 7-8, Level III—grades 9-12.) The first letter is from a student that you might call an avid reader/writer and the second is from a more reluctant reader/writer.

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Letter #1 (Winner—Honorable Mention, state level—Oregon)
To author Han Nolan
Book: If I Should Die Before I Wake
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Han Nolan,
Your book “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” made me look at the people around me in a different way. Chana’s strength and perception made me start focusing more on peoples’ actions, ideas, and views rather than what they own, who they know, or what their dreams are.
When Chana and her family are in the concentration camp, their thoughts and actions are magnified, because that’s all they have left. The Jews are put in a place where they are forced to work without food, to obey commands and given no clothing, to sweat, starve and die under the cold, watchful eyes of the Germans. Chana had to have strength of character and the courage of her convictions to survive. The harsh conditions of the damp brought out the best and worst in people — character traits that never would have shown up otherwise. The part of the book that really got inside my head was when Chana found herself in a position to kill one of the German guards who had caused her and everyone else in the camp so much pain.
               “I was not a girl with dreams of someday becoming a great violinist, or of getting married and having children. I was not a girl with a family, or a house, or fancy clothes. I was not someone who belonged to a shul, or was known for her brown wavy hair with a strand that always jutted out in the back. I could no longer identify myself by what I owned, or who I knew, or what my dreams were. This—my body, my mind, my soul—was all I was. It is all any of us ever are, and without the camouflage of my dreams and possessions, I realized that everything I did, every thought i had, was all I was. It was all very simple. If I killed the guard, all of who I was would be a murderer, not a murderer and a violinist who lived in a house and had a nice family—just a murderer. If I showed love, all of me would be a lover. Who then did I want to be?”
                 Separated from their families, stripped of their clothes, and living in tiny, freezing barracks with greasy kitchens, the hearts of the Jews are revealed.
Their thoughts and actions become all they are. It is all we ever are, but we never learn to see that because we live in disguise, masked by our possessions, our dreams, our position in society.
This got me thinking…without my possessions and dreams, who would I be? I would not be a girl who had a nice family and went to school. I would not be a girl who loved books and art, would not be a girl who had a dog called Tillie and lived on a house on a hill that was best for sledding.
After I thought about this, I began to put more emphasis on my actions, thoughts, and views on things. I started question in the people around me. What if we all wore school uniforms? What if we lived in a world where every thing was invisible, and all that showed were your words? Would people choose the same friends?
People have always told me “It’s what on the inside that counts” but the real meaning of that statement never got inside my head until now. When Chana was in the concentration camp, the importance of her thoughts and actions was magnified. I realized that without having to get to that point, I can still look at people through their actions and words, and cherish my own.
Thank you.

Sincerely,
J.N.

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Letter #2 (Winner—Second Runner Up, state level—Oregon)

To author Carl Deuker
Book: Painting the Black
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Mr. Deuker,
I feel that you have written the book, Painting the Black just for me. I believe this because at so many different periods in the book, I was able to relate back to a time where I have felt the same excitement, or the same doubt. This year I have read more books total then I have in my whole life. My total this year is six and counting, from kindergarten until now I had read probably four books. Thanks to authors like you I have finally been able to feel the excitement of a good book.
I am a big sports guy, always playing a sport, and if I’m not playing, then I’m watching. The last two years have been a big switch for me; I went from soccer to football. Last year was my first year I played football, starting at tight end. I felt that I was fairly decent; I enjoyed playing this position as well. Going out for a deep pass or crushing my enemy with a huge clock—I loved it. But deep down inside, I was a quarterback. I could bomb the ball in the tightest spiral and make it look like it was not even spinning. I was a QB. There was only one thing that was keeping me from achieving my goal, and that was my best friend Greg. He was like Josh in the story—he was perfect. If he was going to throw deep, it was going deep and right on the mark every time. If I wanted to be QB next year, I was going to have to work, and work hard; work as hard as Ryan did in the story. He wanted to be the starting catcher on the team and he achieved his dream. So why couldn’t I? I worked all summer long throwing the football constantly. I threw through a tire that hung from a play set in back yard. I wanted to be a QB, so that’s what I was going to be. I told myself that every night.
Now it was finally time, football season; it was finally here, and I was ready. At practice, I worked at QB hard, and let me tell you I was doing a good job. I was living the life I always wanted and it was only my second year. After that practice, I proved to my self and to my coach that I should be the starting quarterback for the Beaverton Metro Junior Beavers.
During the year I had feelings, just as Josh did the first game he got to play. I felt on fire, with everything going my way, a masterpiece at work, dodging tackles, and diving for first downs. It was great. I worked just as hard as Ryan did, and I was successful, too. There was a time when one of my fellow teammates did something against team rules. I did not choose to tell, and I did this for the same reason as Ryan. He was hesitant to tell on Josh in the story. We needed this player, and we may have lost without him. The same for Ryan and Josh; Josh had a shocking incident with Monica in the story. Ryan did not want to tell at first for the same reason as I, but Ryan ended up doing the right thing. I didn’t. It turned out to be not that big of a deal, but to this day, I still think about it.
               Painting the Black is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Let me tell you Mr. Deuker, I will never find a book that matched my life in the same way.

Sincerely,
N.B.

*Important Note*

I do hope you take a moment to visit www.read.gov/letters/ and look at both the contest details and examples of national level winning letters. You will find information about entering (and how the letters will be assessed) and a helpful teaching guide to supplement your own ideas. November is the month when you may begin submitting entries, and each level has it’s own submission deadline.

Since the new school year is several months away (and many miles beyond your current radar), I will post a reminder here on STG and on Twitter (@JeffHicks156) sometime in September/early October.

Some School Related Book Recommendations

The books that follow are three of my favorite recent reads. And I believe they’re the kind of books that, in the hands of student readers, could launch a whole bunch of the type of letters the LAL contest (above) is all about. I could say a lot about each of them, but I won’t. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information or classroom ideas you may be too busy to absorb at this point in the year. I just want to let you know about a few worthwhile books to check out for yourself. But don’t be surprised if I come back to one or more of them in the fall when your teacher engine is fully charged.

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Book: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Grades 5 and up

352 pages

http://alibenjamin.com/site/

Passage—pages 109-110

            The next thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this: They are taking over.

            Did you know that? Not many people do. It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention. People pay attention to other things. They pay attention to videos of cats playing pianos, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend. They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

            But meanwhile. Out there in the sea. Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

            Isn’t that a pretty phrase? Jellyfish blooms, like garden flowers opening up to the sun.

            There are more jellyfish than ever. At least, that’s what some scientists say.

 

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Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Grades 8 and up (If it were a movie—PG-13 rating)

320 pages

http://www.brendankiely.com/all-american-boys/

http://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Jason-Reynolds/403685768

Passage—pages 144-145

             I knew exactly what I was drawing. The only thing I could. I was going to re-create the scene, what had happened to me, what was playing constantly on the news, on the page.

            First the outline. A teenage boy. Hands up. No. Erase. Hands down. No. Hands behind his back. Outline of a figure behind him. Bigger than he is. Holding him around the neck. No. Not that. Fist in the air. No. Not that either. Hands pushing through the teenage boy’s chest. A building behind him. A store. Person in the doorway. Cheering.

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Book: The War that Save my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Grades 4-7

320 pages

http://www.kimberlybrubakerbradley.com/

Passage—pages 183

            I knew I couldn’t really stay. The good things here—not being shut up in the one room, for starters, and then Butter, and my crutches, and being warm even when it was cold outside. Clean clothes. Nightly baths. Three meals a day. That cup of Bovril before bedtime. The ocean seen from the top of the hill—all of these things, they were just temporary. Just until Mam came for us. I didn’t dare get too used to them.

            I tried to think of the good things about home. I remembered Mam bringing home fish-‘n’-chips on Friday nights, crisp and hot and wrapped in newspaper. I remembered that sometimes Mam sang, and laughed, and once even danced Jamie around the table. I remembered how when Jamie was little he spent his days inside with me. I remembered the crack on the ceiling that looked like a man in a pointed hat.

            And even if it felt like Mam hated me, she had to love me, didn’t she? She had to love me, because she was my mam, and Susan was just somebody who got stuck taking care of Jamie and me because of the war.

 

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

We know your school year is in full gear even as it winds down. It won’t be long before we take a short summer break, as well. Before we do, Vicki is going to tell you about Steve Peha’s new book, Be a Better Writer. It’s filled with all sorts of ideas for your classroom—a few to try now and many more for the fall.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

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I have a friend, a retired university English professor, who is my reading role model because of both his reading habits and the books he chooses to read. Every winter, he selects a Dickens novel to read—it’s the perfect season for reading Dickens (and he has read all of them), and while he was teaching, he would “treat” himself at the conclusion of spring term to one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. His recommendations have steered me to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Wilke Collin’s The Moonstone, and Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, to name just a few. My good friend has even inspired me to do something I usually don’t like to do—“binge” read more than one book consecutively by the same author. I haven’t done it quite to his level—e.g. he read the entire John Le Carre novel catalog in order (I think that’s around 23 books). I’m not even sure why I don’t like to do it, but recently broke from my pattern and read four books in a row by YA author Andrew Smith, one after the other before coming up for air: Winger, Stand Off (the sequel to Winger), Grasshopper Jungle, and Stick. And I have three more waiting on the shelf—100 Miles Sideways, the Alex Crow, and Ghost Medicine (Smith’s first novel).

There’s something (actually there’s a lot of somethings) about Andrew Smith’s writing, storytelling, characters, and honesty that just speaks to me, and I figure that if that’s true, then his books will also resonate with a grade 9-12 student audience. I do want to provide a bit of a warning to readers who may be sensitive/nervous about reading or recommending YA novels containing salty language, sexual references, and sexual situations. These books are all coming of age stories focusing on male lead characters, and yes, they contain some strong language and sexual situations. None of this seems gratuitous or included for shock value because Mr. Smith’s characters speak authentic “boy.” The hook for me, as I think it will be for student readers, is that each of Mr. Smith’s books features fully realized characters drawn from real life, facing real problems, and dealing with them using their real teenage brains. Real teen characters are going to use foul language, and they are going to have family issues, friendships, romantic relationships, they’re going to question authority, and make some bad decisions. And because they are teenagers, they’re going to think about sex, talk about sex, and act upon sexual impulses. But they’re also going to surprise the adults in their lives by thinking and doing amazing things for themselves, the people they care about, and even for their world. (Both my teaching and parenting experiences will vouch for that.)

In case I haven’t scared you off, what follows is a brief summary of three of the four Andrew Smith books I read ( I don’t want to overwhelm you or somehow limit the joy you might feel at discovering the rest on your own), some short passages from each to give you a flavor of his writing, and an idea or two about how all or part of the books might be used by grade 9-12 teachers. (Stand-Off is a fully realized, very satisfying sequel to Winger, a continuation of the main character’s coming of age. I thought I would start you off with the first book, and let you go from there.)

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Winger. 2013. Andrew Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

439 pages (Hardback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age novel

Summary: Ryan Dean West is fourteen, excels at school, is kind of scrawny, and the youngest 11th grader at Pine Mountain, a fancy private boarding school in the mountains of Oregon. At Pine Mountain they play rugby, a sport for both behemoths and undersized fast kids like Ryan Dean. He plays winger, hence his less than creative nickname, “Winger.” To begin his junior year, Ryan Dean is placed in Opportunity Hall, a special dormitory for students who have broken one of the many strict rules at Pine Mountain. Ryan Dean was caught stealing/borrowing a teacher’s cell phone and hacking into the account so he could make “undetected, untraceable” calls. (Cell phones are off limits to students.) He’s not a bad kid though he does make several questionable decisions, fueled by self-doubt. He’s often aware they’re bad decisions, yet makes them anyway—“I’m such a loser!” is his frequent, sad mantra.

The story, told by Ryan Dean, is enhanced by the inclusion of his cartoons, where he lampoons teachers, friends, enemies, and himself, along with humorous charts/graphs of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Ryan Dean believes in telling the truth, and let’s readers know that though he swears frequently in his narration, he almost never does it in front of people. He’s got an awful roommate, a rogue’s gallery of teammates, and to top it off, he’s in love with Annie, his best friend, and yearns for her to see him as more than a little kid. To tell much more would be verging on spoiling some wonderful character and story developments. As always, I suggest you read the book yourself before recommending it or using it with students.

Three Short Passages from Winger—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I’ll be honest. If someone asked me am I in love with Annie Altman, I’d have to say I don’t know, because I really don’t know. I have nothing to compare with how I feel about her. But I do know that I feel this kind of a need where she is concerned; I need her to notice me more than she does; I need to think that I make her feel lighter when she sees me. And there’s no way I could ever believe that was possible, because it was just little me, Ryan Dean West, fourteen years old, walking around in the exact same clothes and tie as four hundred other guys at Pine Mountain, every one of us so much the same, except for me, except for that one thing she noticed that she couldn’t get over, that made me so unattractively different from every other eleventh-grade boy in this shithole. (Page 108)
  2. Running through the woods north of their house, it amazed me how green things grew on top of green things that were still green and growing. Trees were covered with ferns and vines and mosses, and everywhere it looked as if nothing had been dry in centuries. And in the dark woods as we ran, I could smell that living-ocean scent of the island, and I heard nothing but the sounds of our feet on the wet ground, our breathing, and the static-spark sizzle of rain dripping through the forest cover. (Page 261)
  3. Okay.

                 Let’s call this an intermission.

                 With a bit of an apology, I guess.

                  You ever hear of Joseph Conrad? He said, “One writes half the book: the other half is up to the reader.”

                 Mr. Wellins might say that I have made you a conscripted audience. That I didn’t give you a choice as to whether or not to believe me, and, believe me, sometimes I can’t believe myself.

            Or something. (Page 410)

In Your Classroom

This (and the sequel, Stand-Off, as well) may not be a book you want to use with your entire class, but it may be just the thing to recommend to a student or select group of students for independent or special project reading. This is where your relationships with your students—knowledge of their interests, reading habits/patterns, etc.—really come into play. I always kept a stand of books on my desk for students to borrow and for me to recommend. It never seemed to matter what books I had, if they were on my desk, students would ask to see them, like I had a lock on all the “cool” books. I hate to label books as “boy” or “girl” books, but as I said, Andrew Smith speaks fluent boy, especially to boys who have spent some time on the edges of school/social circles. Here are a couple ways to use selected parts of the book.

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any that speak to you from your reading of the book) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used as a model for students to reflect about something/someone they care about, or as a model for self-description. The passage blends long sentences with shorter ones and even violates some “rules”—beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc.)—as a stylistic choice to create interesting sentence fluency.
  2. Using Cartoons/Graphs/Charts to Explain a Key Life Moment—Ryan Dean punctuates moments in his story with the inclusion of a cartoon drawing—like the one of the door to his dorm room on page 13—or a graph/chart to visualize or quantify something he is feeling—page 55’s pie chart of “Ryan Dean West Brain Capacity Allocation,” page 117’s bar graph of “Things Ryan Dean West is Afraid Of.”
  3. The Game of Rugby—Ryan Dean plays rugby and loves it—the physicality, the camaraderie, the traditions, and the fact that it’s a sport where skinny, fast, tenacious guys like him play an important role. (One of my roommates in college played rugby, so I have watched countless games and understand at least the basics of the game. I even traveled in a van with his rugby team from Eugene, Oregon to Carmel, California for a huge rugby tournament. It’s a game that attracts really “interesting” characters of all shapes and sizes.) I would use some of the rugby talk (there are passages about rugby practice, games, and rituals) in this book as a springboard to researching and explaining the culture and rules of rugby (or any sport that interests your students). 

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Stick. 2011. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

292 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age (Sexual identity, physical/verbal abuse)

 Summary:

This story is told through the eyes and ear (just one) of thirteen-year-old Stark McClellan. He’s called Stick because that’s the way he’s built—tall for his age and rail thin. He was born with only one ear and has been told by his abusive parents, in many ways, that he is ugly and deformed. Stick and his sixteen-year-old brother Bosten are survivors. Their close relationship keeps them going as each suffers beatings, confinement, and verbal abuse. When their parents find out that Bosten is gay, he leaves home after suffering a terrible beat down at the hands of his father. Stick summons the courage to go after him, to keep their all important connection alive, and finds his way to his Aunt Dahlia’s in California, a safe haven where he figures Bosten will end up.

Three Short Passages from Stick—Just for the Flavor:

  1. When you see me at first, I look like just about another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you’re probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even—green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy’s ear, but it’s pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter’s clay. No hole—a canal, they call it.

            Nothing gets into my head that way.

            I can’t easily hide it because my dad won’t let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there’s nothing                        wrong with            me.

                                                                                                                        But I’m ugly.

            You see what I’m doing, don’t you? I                        am                         making

                                                                                                                        you hear me.

            The way                         I                         hear the                                     world.

            But I won’t do it too much, I                                                promise. (Page 6)

 

  1. “Let me see. Okay?”

            I pulled the sheet down, away from Bosten’s shoulders, so I could see his back.

            We’d both been beaten plenty of times before. This was one of the bad ones. It happened every so often.

            “It’s pretty bad,” I said.

            From the middle of his shoulder blades, past his butt and onto his thighs, Bosten was streaked with purple welts. Some of the marks that were raised had actually bled; all of them, angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.

            I whispered, lower, “Turn flat. I’m going to put something on it to make you feel better.”

            Bosten rolled flat onto his belly. He rested his chin on his forearm and stared at the wall at the head of the bed.

            “I hate them.” (Page 62)

 

  1. Sometimes I wondered why she treated us that way, why she accepted us the way she did. It wasn’t a sterile kind of tolerance, like kids could expect from PE coaches and nurses who gave you tetanus shots; it was something else.

            One time she told me about how her husband died when she was only twenty-five years old. I said he must have been a real nice man, but I couldn’t look at her when I said that. It made me sadder that just about anything. It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.

            She was a wondrous person, I thought. (Page 132)

In Your Classroom

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any other that catch your eye and ear as you read) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used with students as a model for self-description—“When you see me at first…” The writing could be done as poetry, where student writers consider how they see themselves compared to how others see them. The passage explains how Stick, because of his missing ear, hears/processes when people speak to him. He wants us to experience the slower, delayed pace of incoming speech. Your student writers could experiment in their own poetry with spacing gaps, line breaks, and formatting as a way to control the way their readers encounter their messages.
  2. Figurative Language—Similes—In passage #2, Bosten has been severely beaten by his father, again. Andrew Smith, through Stick, describes this moment between brothers quietly, almost casually. It may be shocking to us, but to them, it’s routine. As a reader, this makes the moment seem even more horrifying. He punctuates it with a pair of vivid, related similes, coming one after the other, “…angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.” Students could experiment with this idea of simile stacking.
  3. Discussion/Opinion Writing— I think that the second to last line in passage #3 would open the door to an interesting class discussion followed up with a reflective piece of writing: “It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.” It’s a variation on the classic Nature v. Nurture conundrum. What forces, experiences, circumstances, choices, lead people to behave the way they do? Is it possible for people to be all good or all bad? Is it possible for people to change?

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Grasshopper Jungle. 2014. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

388 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age/sexual identity/science fiction/giant grasshopper apocalypse novel (This is a difficult one to pin down.)

Awards: 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal Longlist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award

Summary:

I’m not sure if I can actually summarize this book. It may be the coolest, strangest, funniest, creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not quite sure how to explain the wild storyline. Remember all of the things I said earlier about salty language and sexual references/situations? They really apply to this book. Even though the story takes some bizarre turns, the main characters seemed real—real teenagers immersed in a surreal world. Austin Szerba, his best friend Robby, and his girlfriend Shann unwittingly loose upon the world a horde of savage, giant praying mantises interested only in eating and multiplying. This insect apocalypse begins in a small town in Iowa but has links to Austin’s Polish ancestors and a series of strange scientific discoveries, past and present. And, of course, it’s up to these three to save both their world and the world.

Based on what I’ve just said (or any of the book jacket blurbs), you may decide not to read it or even look at it. But I can think of several reluctant reader-teenage boy-students—past and present—who would eat this book up and ask for more. One student in particular comes to mind. He is a fanatic follower of The Walking Dead graphic novel series and television show, and has struggled with all sorts of issues. This student would find a connection, both as a reader and as a young man, with Austin, Robby, and Shann. You might not want to use this with an entire class, but having books like this one in your pocket, so to speak (or on your desk), empowers you to perhaps keep a few students reading.

Two Short Passages from Grasshopper Jungle—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

            We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

            But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

            This is my history.

            There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

            Just like it’s always been. (Page nine—opening lines of the book)

 

  1. The Unstoppable Soldier looked confused, if such an expression could manifest itself on the face of a six-foot-tall beast that looked like a praying mantic. Hungry Jack’s left arm fell off first. The right arm disjointed and plunked down onto the ground seconds later. The tooth-spiked claw arms rattled around on the pavement of the parking lot, spastically opening and closing, opening and closing, as they scraped along the ground with no coherent mission.

            Where the claw arms had detached from Hungry Jack’s thorax, a gooey stream of slick yellow fluid burbled like twin pots of boiling unstoppable cornmeal mush. Then Hungry Jack’s chin lowered and his head rolled away from his body, landing on the ground between the two flailing arms.

            What was left of Hungry Jack scampered away on four gangly legs, which soon became three, then two, and the entire Unstoppable Soldier collapsed in puddles of oily mush.

            Robby Brees saved my life.

            Being a historian naturally has its dangers, but this is my job. I tell the truth. (Pages 354-355)

 

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Because this is the book’s opening, passage #1 could be used as a model for students to begin a written reflection/story from their history—a brief scene from their lives so far or moment where they acted stupidly and didn’t actually learn from it. You could even use the last line of Passage #2 to open their reflection, emphasizing that what follows will be “the truth.” The second passage is a clear example of the power that strong verbs have to give movement/motion to scenes describing action.

More About Andrew SmithVisit www.authorandrewsmith.com for all sorts of information about Mr. Smith and his books.

Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our three picks for this post:

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters by Sean B. Carroll

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 Letters About Literature contest for grade 4-12 students, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, has come and gone. I was only recently reminded of this wonderful writing contest that I used to invite my students to enter. Shortly after the winners (state and national levels) are announced in April, I want to put in a plug for both the contest and the type of writing it inspires. And, of course, Vicki and I have been reading all sorts of wonderful books we’ll want to share with you to inspire you and your student writers.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

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My first suggestion for you is to make sure you’ve read Vicki Spandel’s post from late January, “Rubrics Revisited.” I’ve lifted the title of my post directly from Vicki’s piece, because it resonated so strongly to me. So feel free to take a few moments to check it out!

Vicki’s latest post, “Rubrics Revisited,” has been rolling around inside my head since I first read it, so much so that I’d like to briefly revisit her revisiting. I’ve been doing some substitute teaching this school year, mostly with fifth grade students at the elementary school four blocks from my house but including a few days here and there at middle and high school. Recently, I’ve also been helping the high school son of a good friend–I’ll refer to him as Student K–with some of his writing for his senior Lit and Comp class. Vicki’s spot-on comments about rubrics, or writing guides (as we prefer to call them), rang so many bells with my recent classroom experiences, and especially my work with Student K, that I felt the need to toss out my own thoughts and reflections. I want to focus my comments on one particular statement Vicki makes early in her post (the underlining is mine): “My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?” And, of course, it should be the goal and the foundation of powerful writing instruction in the classroom.

Before I get going, I want to make sure one thing is clear. When I substitute or work with individual students, I don’t judge the teachers I’m filling in for or those who have assigned the writing I’m helping a student work through. Seriously—that’s not my job. Neither Vicki nor I have ever suggested that there’s only one way to teach writing. We’ve focused our efforts on identifying the philosophies, the strategies, and the practices that work (and have worked over time)—across all grade levels—to develop confident, accomplished young writers. However, I do notice things—classroom routines, a room’s physical set up, instructional practices, the way students respond to directions, and the way students react to and approach writing in the classroom. I do encounter amazing teachers and classrooms all the time, and I don’t call them amazing because they do things exactly as I would. But I also find and am frustrated by, truth be told, missed opportunities in many classrooms especially when it comes to using “rubrics” and personal comments to communicate with student writers as part of writing instruction. (I’m pretty sure that sounds judgmental even if that’s not my intention.)

What follows are a few of my takeaways from Vicki’s post filtered through years in my own classroom, my work with teachers as a professional development presenter, my current work as a substitute teacher, and focused on several of these instructional missed opportunities uncovered during my very recent work with a senior in high school, Student K.

Student K’s Story—Instructional “Missed Opportunities”

Student K came to me wanting some help on an end-of-semester writing assignment for his grade 12 Lit and Comp class. His task was to fictionalize an actual crime story—factual reportage—similar to the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He could not exceed a thousand words and would be assessed with a 4-point, 4-part task-specific rubric. (I’ve included a photo later.) This rubric was handed out at the onset of the assignment. The descriptors broke down levels of performance across four learning targets:

1—I can select and apply effective words and syntax.

2—I can use correct conventions (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) in my writing.

3—I can write narrative pieces.

4—I can use the writing process to improve my writing.

Student K based his writing on a pair of robberies at a local convenience store committed by two high school age boys. (The boys robbed the same store, with the same clerk at the register, within a two-week span.) He had an initial outline, notes from research, two rough drafts—one with “comments” from the teacher, and a copy of the rubric. I would describe my work with Student K as an extended revision conference—we met three days in a row after school for about 90 minutes each visit. (NoteI am absolutely aware that this kind of one-on-one time with a student writer is a luxury and impossible to have during school hours with a classroom full of students regardless of the grade level.) We started with a look at his second rough draft to see what kind of feedback his teacher had provided. What we discovered was, in my mind, a missed opportunity.

Missed Opportunity—As Vicki emphasized in her post, “…a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision…” Student K’s rough draft did not contain any formative feedback from the rubric. None! The only feedback to Student K were comments related to the paper’s formatting—the word “header” had been written at the top of each page and “works cited/word count” was written on the last page. This is not the kind of specific feedback that opens the to door to meaningful revision. From teacher feedback like this, Student K (or any student) could make the assumption that everything else about the piece was at least “OK—good to go.”

Student writers need to know both what they’re doing well and what they might need to work on to improve their piece. I like to use a feedback term/practice borrowed from a colleague—Stars and a Staircase. Star comments let the student writer know what’s really working in their piece, reinforcing their strengths, while Staircase comments hone in on specific areas where the reader is experiencing confusion or needing to ask questions. These comments help guide the writer’s revision, moving their piece up the “staircase.” As Vicki states in her post, “Just saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘ I loved this piece!’ isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece…” Feedback, in the form of “scores” or descriptors from a writing guide or written comments from the reader/teacher, is not only about addressing the current piece or assignment, it’s about arming student writers with the tools, confidence, and independence for “the next piece.”

So, in an attempt to nurture the independence that meaningful, specific feedback is able to provide a student writer, the first thing I asked Student K to do was to read his piece out loud with a pen in his hand. While reading his own work aloud, he is both “reader” and “writer.” If he stumbles over something, it’s more than likely that any other reader would as well. The pen was for marking anything he was confused by or didn’t like and for making quick changes/corrections—spelling, missing words, punctuation, sequencing, etc. He was well over his word limit (let the record show that I’m not a fan of “word counts”), so he was also on the lookout for words/phrases/sentences he could eliminate. The pen was also for him to notice and highlight what he felt (as the reader) was working well. We didn’t total up the number of times his pen hit his paper, but it was well over twenty. We did, however, categorize the things he noticed in his own work—here are a few:

*Repetitive word choices

            *Moments of confusion

            *Repetitive transitional language—lots of “and thens”

            *Missing transitions between paragraphs

            *Repeated sentence beginnings—He, The, They, etc.

            *Confusing conclusion—(confused by his own conclusion!)

            *Inconsistent verb tense

            *Figurative language     

I asked him to reflect on this, and the first thing he said was, “I noticed a lot!” Absolutely—imagine that! I asked him to describe a highlight (a Star) and a work-light (a Staircase-something to work on) from his read-through. Student K gave himself a Star for two examples of figurative language he used while describing the two young men featured in his piece:

Example #1“He once was a nice young boy, the type of kid that your parents would want you to hang out with and have as a friend. However, after he took advantage of a female classmate while she was intoxicated at a party, everything changed. Everything. Now people hesitated to make eye contact with him, as if he was Medusa.”

Example #2—“Harris looked older than most of the kids in his grade because he actually was. Being held back two years gives you that certain look. Even in kindergarten, the teachers used to shake their heads, almost as if they could already see the path he was headed towards. Timothy was not the traveler that Robert Frost wrote about. No matter what two roads diverged in front of him, he always took the wrong path. At 2:30 in the morning, when most people are sleeping, the wrong path led Timothy, with his partner in tow, to the Plaid Pantry convenience store.”

Neither of these examples attracted any attention from Student K’s teacher even though the rubric for this task emphasizes the use of figurative language in learning target #3—I can write narrative pieces. Student K’s Staircase comments for himself focused on eliminating/replacing repetitive word choices and sentence beginnings, and on the clarity of his conclusion—he didn’t like the way his piece ended.

At this point, I wanted him to “assess” (not score, not grade) his own writing again, this time using the rubric he had been given. I suggested he look for descriptors—not worrying about the “score”—that he felt matched his writing. He found at least one in each of the four categories, but it was not easy for two reasons.

Missed Opportunity—First, he told me that in this class, he had not used a rubric to “assess” his own writing in this way before. He had also not experienced the practice of using a rubric to “assess” anyone else’s writing. (Deep—possibly judgmental—sigh!) Borrowing words from Vicki’s post again, I (we) believe students need to have “…regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising…” both the writing of others, “…students and professionals…” and their own writing. This practice develops independence in student writers who, over time, begin to take charge of their own writing process. In a classroom setting, the discourse (discussion) between students (and the teacher) as they “assess” writing samples, clarifies exactly how a rubric will be used when their own writing is being “assessed” by the teacher using the same rubric. Student K experienced a second problem as he attempted to use the rubric himself. The descriptors in the task-specific rubric he had were really more of a checklist of all the things the teacher would be looking for—“There is correct use of dialogue…,” “There is some use of imagery that appeals to the senses…,” “There are 2 + rough drafts included…,” “Story opens with complete background information…” The reality was that his personal assessment became a process of going through the rubric in a “Got-it, Got-it, Need-it…” manner. For me, that’s one of the problems with many task-specific rubrics. It’s possible to say ”Check!” to each of listed items—Task completed!—and still end up with a piece of writing that is missing something important to the overall quality of the writing—the experience of the reader/audience, the reason for writing in the first place.

Following Student K’s two rounds of personal “assessment,” I did offer some of my own feedback but focused my comments/help on a few of the items he had noticed himself, particularly his conclusion. I left Student K loaded down with a pile of his own revision suggestions, sprinkled with a few of my own.

Just last week, Student K let me know he had received his writing back with a rubric score and a grade, and of course, I was anxious to hear about it.

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

Missed Opportunity—The pictures I’ve included here show the rubric as it was returned to Student K. Based on the X marks, we determined that his rubric scores on the four learning targets were 2, 3, 3, 3. I asked him what the scores meant to him and he replied, “That means I got a B.” We then looked at the paper to review the written comments. (By this point I’m admitting that the judgmental gloves are off!) Student K decided he had found a tiny Star at the end of the comment: “A long falling action but fitting resolution.” Reacting to the handful of Staircase comments—“Use better description,” “Be specific,” “What neighborhood?” “You need much more on this climax! “—Student K said (exactly what I was thinking), “Why didn’t he say something about these on my rough draft?” What really baffled me was that the rubric scores and the written comments, whether taken separately or in combination, had not communicated a clear message to the writer. Quality writing assessment had not been achieved! If Student K’s only takeaway was that he had received a “B,” the teacher could have saved time by not using the rubric or writing even limited comments. Just slap a “B” at the top and move on to the next assignment. (Now that’s judgmental!) Many teachers will say that it takes too much time to use rubrics and personal comments. I contend that by nurturing the independence of student writers—arming them with writing guides and training them to be self-assessors first—actually saves assessment time for teachers.

Knock—Knock! Bang—Bang! Ding—Dong!

Who’s at the door? It’s Opportunity! That’s one of the things you can count on as a teacher—lots of opportunities for taking advantage of instructional opportunities! If your goal as a writing teacher is developing confident, capable student writers, then for me, the path is quality instruction informed by quality assessment. As Vicki urged at the end of her post, “It all comes back to concepts.” And to teach the concepts of good writing, it takes specific practices: First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.”

Opening clear, purposeful lines of communication between you and your student writers is what is most important in helping them know where they stand as writers today and where they could be standing tomorrow.

Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our four picks for this post:

  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  • Soul Serenade: Rhythm and Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

I have been binge-reading the YA books of author Andrew Smith and want to share some thoughts about this powerful writer. His books are definitely for the grade 9+ crowd, dealing with sensitive, timely, and important issues. His characters and storylines are brutally honest, frequently strange, and often laugh-out-loud.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

snakes, alligators, and broken hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. 2015. Written and illustrated by Sneed B. Collard III. Design by Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli. With animal artwork by Tessa K. Collard. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing. 174 pages including Epilogue and Author’s Note.

Genre: Memoir

Ages: Upper elementary and middle school

 Fire Birds! cover

Summary

Sneed portraitAuthor and biologist Sneed Collard is known primarily for children’s nonfiction books that resound with voice and feed our imaginations with curious, often startling details about the world’s quirkiest inhabitants. Sea Snakes, Creepy Creatures, Alien Invaders, Animal Dads, A Whale Biologist at Work, The Deep Sea Floor, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, and Fire Birds are just a handful of the dozens of titles familiar to his fans. More recently, Sneed has ventured into fiction as well, with books like Dog Sense, Double Eagle, and Hangman’s Gold.

IMG_5884 (2)Just weeks ago, Collard released his memoir, an account of his adventures growing up as the son of a biologist. In this newest book, he shows how his experiences—from joyful to dark—influenced his desire to become a scientist himself and a writer as well. It’s a lively, often humorous account that tracks Sneed’s life from preschool days as a young snake and turtle collector through that last fateful summer before high school—which turned out to be a time of life changing decisions.

The art of memoir

In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr reminds us that memoir is a demanding genre because in writing about your own life, “you’re making an experience for a reader.” She adds, “You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). Calling up early memories can be challenging, even painful. The things readers want to hear about are often the very moments writers most want to bury. Sneed Collard’s memoir offers up a rich collection of memories, some hilarious, and some touching or troubling. Through tales of friendship, divorce, alcoholism, love, loss, and a passionate curiosity for nature and all life, he does indeed, in the words of Mary Karr, create an experience for us. For Collard’s many fans, this long-awaited book will be like having a good conversation with an old friend.

 

In the Classroom

  1.  Reading. The book comprises 31 short chapters and an epilogue, making it ideal for sharing aloud in short increments. Or, especially if you have students who are familiar with and fans of Sneed Collard’s numerous other books (Note the book list in the very front of the memoir), Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts makes an ideal subject for review and discussion in a small book group.
  2. Memoir—a special genre. What do your students know about the genre called memoir? You might open your discussion of Sneed’s book by asking how they define memoir (they might even write a short definition and you can read these aloud later). Synonyms include record, journal, dossier, log, history, and biography. The dictionary defines memoir as a personal account of historical events—or events in which one took part. According to writers like Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir, 2015), however, this definition doesn’t go nearly far enough. As Karr has told us, a good memoir creates an experience for the reader—and it does so through the author’s careful selection of events he or she is willing to share. Given this expanded definition, what challenges might a memoir writer face?
  3. Personal Connection. What other memoirs have your students read? Make a list. You may wish to read others in conjunction with Sneed Collard’s book—or afterward, as an extension of your study of memoir. Possibilities include the following (Add to this list to give your students a valuable resource):

 

  • The Secret Lives of Us Kids: A Childhood Memoir 1941-1945 by Bonnie Buckley Maldonado (2014)
  • I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure (2009)
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle with Clare B. Dunkle (2015)
  • My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel (2006
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, ed. Jon Scieszka (2008)
  • Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography by Jerry Spinelli (1998)
  • Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry (2000)
  • When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (by renowned authors), ed. Louise Ehrlich (2012)

 

  1. It’s all about choices. “That night I tossed and turned in my bed, alternately steeling myself for the challenge ahead and trying to think of legitimate reasons for backing out.” This line comes from page 94 of Chapter 18: The Tower. Sneed is about ten years old, in Wakulla Springs, Florida—and trying to psych himself up for a jump off “the tower,” a legendary diving structure with platforms twelve, twenty, and a “soul-shaking” thirty-three feet above the water. If he goes off the top platform, he will avoid humiliation—but at what cost? Talk about the tower first. What does it symbolize for the young people of Wakulla? Then ask your students whether they have ever made a decision to do something that was “soul-shaking” scary. Most people face such a decision, sometimes many times, within their lives. Ask those who are willing to share some of these experiences, and join them by sharing one or two of your own. Tip: Decisions don’t need to involve life or death to be scary. For some students, a decision to speak up in class can be terrifying. Not all vivid memories are scary ones, either. They can also be wildly hilarious, stunningly surprising—or wondrously joyful. They can even be moments that seem insignificant in every way except the way they stick in your brain for months or years: like the first taste of a favorite food. Talk about what makes a moment memorable and about how writers choose which moments to include in creating the experience of memoir. In addition to the leap off the Wakulla Springs tower, what other particularly significant moments does Sneed Collard include in his memoir? Make a class list. (Note: If students have difficulty recalling, a review of the Table of Contents can be helpful.)

 

  1. Scope. It might seem logical that a memoir would run from the author’s birth to the “present”—whenever that may be. In fact, though, authors can define the span of time they wish to cover. Most do not begin with birth. Why would that be? Ask your students to recall their very earliest memories. How old were they at the time of those recollections? Sneed claims to recall events from as early as the age of two (see page 18). That’s very young indeed! Can any of your students go back that far? Can you? Notice also that this memoir ends during the final summer before Collard enters high school. He might have chosen to continue right up to 2016 and include his years of work as a researcher and writer. Why do your students think he chose instead to end the book when he did? Might this be a wise choice from a writer’s point of view? Could a writer decide to cover an even shorter span of time—say five years, or even less? What’s the shortest span of time a good memoir could cover? An hour? A day? A month? A year? Or would it need to be longer?

 

  1. Building a life map. Have your students ever created a life map? This activity is a highly useful precursor to writing a personal memoir. A life map is a sketched trail or pathway with milestones to mark important events or memories in a person’s life. The map can take the form of a simple geometric shape such as a circle or triangle, or it may wander randomly or in a serpentine fashion, or spiral out from a starting point. The number of milestones is determined by how many events the author wants to share. Those events might include things like making or losing a friend, graduating from a class or school, entering a competition, getting a pet, moving, leaving home—or any of a thousand other things. Anything the author deems significant can make the cut. The photo seen here shows a life map my friend Sally sketched some years ago. She chose to begin with her marriage, and included the birth of her son, a move to a new home, her divorce, various travels, her return to teaching, and her son Eric’s graduations (yes, two of them). She concluded with her decision to work with me training teachers—lucky break for me! Ask your students to sketch life maps of their own, including whatever events they like. If you decide to use these as a precursor to writing memoirs, give students a chance to meet in small groups to discuss their life maps and raise questions. This discussion helps writers recall details they may have left out.

 

  1. Leads. Ask your students if they can think of a clichéd (trite, that is) way to begin a biography or memoir. Too often, writers (including some students!) open any biographical piece (including a memoir) with the standard beginning: I (or name the subject) was born in (name the year) in (name the town). Why does this overused beginning put us to sleep almost instantly? Notice that author Sneed Collard found a completely different way to begin. Re-read the lead from Chapter 1. How would you describe it? What strategies does this author use to get us involved in his story? How long does it take him to tell us when he was born? (Hint: Chapter 2, page 17.) For all of Chapter 1, we are guessing at Sneed’s age during the whale episode. But—there could be some hints to help us. What are they? Why might a writer want to keep readers guessing about something for just a bit before sharing factual information?

 

  1. And more leads . . . Read a few more leads from various chapters in Sneed’s memoir. What do they have in common? How do they create interest or keep readers moving through the text?

 

  1. What about endings? Leads pull us into the writing, but endings can be just as important—sometimes even more so. Read some of the conclusions to chapters in Collard’s memoir. You’ll see that while they all have the sound and feel of an ending, they do not all serve the same function. What are some of the roles that endings play in this book? (Hint: Endings like the one to Chapter 12, page 60, seem to point ahead to new beginnings. The ending to Chapter 21, page 112, wraps up the event we’ve just been reading about—the jump off the dreaded tower.) We often think of transitions as single words or phrases: after a while, next, on the other hand, nevertheless, in addition, and so on. Do leads and conclusions also serve as transitions? Why is this so important in a longer piece?

 

  1. The beauty of the chapter. What is the longest piece your students—or you—have ever written? What are some of the structural devices writers use to break up a particularly long piece of text? (Hint: Your students might mention, for example, paragraphs, subheads, white space, illustrations—and of course, chapters.) What design and structural elements does author Sneed Collard use to divide his memoir into sections? Ask your students to imagine the same book without any paragraphs or chapters with titles. How inviting would such a book be? Would we read it? Then ask this question: How long should a book be before the writer decides to break it into chapters? If your students are writing pieces of, say, five pages or more, ask them to try dividing their writing into chapters (even if they only wind up with two or three). Discuss how they decide how many chapters to include and where the breaks should be. Does formatting by chapters make organization easier for the writer as well as the reader? How so?

 

  1. Chapter titles. Often authors simply identify chapters by number: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on. Sneed Collard obviously gave a great deal of thought to his chapter titles for this book. What does an author add by titling chapters? Which titles from Collard’s book are particularly appealing to your students as readers (Read the list aloud and ask for votes)? What makes some particularly inviting?

 

  1. Graphics. Most of this book is illustrated with photographs. Is this particularly appropriate for a memoir? Why? Notice that Sneed Collard has also chosen to add a few sketches of alligators and snakes drawn by his daughter Tessa. What do these drawings add to the flavor of the book?

 

  1. Voice. At one point, the author writes about his prowess in math (Chapter 16, page 80). He also adds, “I was no slouch in other subjects, either, though I scrawled the ugliest handwriting since Neanderthals had penned pictographs on cave walls thirty thousand years before.” What sort of voice is that? List some words to describe it. Then talk about the overall tone of the book. Is it warm, academic, formal, aloof, chatty, conversational, haughty, modest, or–? In describing it, ask students to identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to that voice? Is it the author’s choice of words, use of dialogue, the subject matter—or something else? How important is voice in memoir? Is it the voice that keeps us reading?

 

  1. Is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? As noted earlier, author Mary Karr cautions us that as a writer of memoir, “you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). But—is it possible for a writer recalling life events to ever tell the whole truth and nothing but? Before answering, read Sneed Collard’s “Author’s Note” on page 171. He says, among other things, that “No one can tell his or her own story with complete objectivity. In telling our stories, we layer in our distorted memories, false perceptions, and viewpoints and prejudices.” How do we reconcile this personal perspective with Mary Karr’s demand for honesty? Have students discuss and/or write about this.

 

  1. Honesty. Unquestionably, honesty is one of the hallmarks of good memoir. Yet it’s difficult, even painful, to be honest about experiences that hurt us or revealed what we perceive as our weaknesses. In Chapter 22 (page 116), Collard writes about the humiliation of Junior High (Middle School) PE, in which students were ranked by proficiency in a very obvious way—through the color of their gym shorts. The least accomplished athletes donned the dreaded dark blue—and hated every wretched blue thread. As their skills grew, they could move up to red, green, silver, gold, and at the very pinnacle, the envied blue silk “that incited an almost godlike worship among all others.” Collard confesses, “Guess which color I wore? Stinking, humiliating blue.” Why is it we appreciate a writer’s honesty so much at moments like this? We laugh, yes, but what else do we feel? Ask your students to identify other moments from this memoir require true writing courage. Modeling opportunity: If you’re brave enough, you might write about an embarrassing or difficult moment of your own as a way of modeling this kind of honesty. Remind students that while honesty can be difficult, it adds immeasurably to the appeal of any good memoir. Does it influence voice as well? How? (Note: It is important for students to understand that no matter how much we value honesty in writers, they have the right to privacy. No author should be asked or expected to write about events or circumstances that are simply too uncomfortable to recall or relate. You can use your modeling opportunity to clarify this by talking about how you chose what to write about—and what to keep personal.)

 

  1. Epilogue. Read the author’s epilogue (page 167) aloud. What is the meaning of the word epilogue? What does an epilogue add that a final chapter from a book cannot? Your students may never have written an epilogue. It takes perspective, for one thing—and that can be difficult for a very young person to achieve readily. But you might try this: Ask students who write memoirs to set them aside for a period of time, even until towards the end of the school year. Then ask them to add an epilogue to the memoir they wrote weeks or months before. Talk about what new perspective can add to a piece of writing.

 

  1. Research. Wait a minute. Research for a memoir? Doesn’t it all just flow out of your head? Before answering that question, take time to read the author’s note of “Thanks” on pages 173-174. What do Sneed’s final remarks reveal about his own personal research for the book? What do they tell us about the nature of research itself? It’s not all about visiting the library! Note: If your students are writing their own memoirs, you might suggest that they investigate any family photo collections that might be available—and consider interviewing some of the people (parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors) who have been part of their lives. They may also wish to consider incorporating photos into the final drafts of their memoirs.

 

  1. The Journey. Note the full title once again: Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. In what sense is a memoir a journey? Think back to your definitions of memoir (point 2), what your students decided about the scope of a good memoir (point 5), and your life maps, if you made them (point 6). Then think about the concept of journey. What do we mean by this word? What happens to a person on a journey? Ask your students to identify passages that help define who Sneed Collard is at the beginning of his memoir—and who he becomes by the end. What forces shape this transition? Where did his journeys take him?

animal dadsleaving homepocket babiesThe Deep Sea Floordouble eaglelizards2Sneed 4

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Vicki shares some thoughts on the use of rubrics—or writing guides, as we prefer to call them.

Then we’re tossing the ball into Jeff’s court for comments on some good books and writing ideas you will want in your life.

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We appreciate your comments and your questions. Come often, and tell friends about us, too. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, writing workshop, process, and literature, call Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

 

 

London . . . and Letters

Happy New Year! (from Vicki)

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to 2016. It’s good to be back—back writing for Gurus, and back from a trip that proved to be one of the most fulfilling ever.

We’re going!

Last summer, my husband and I quite impulsively decided to sign up for a maiden voyage that would take us from Southampton to Miami in late fall. Crossing the Atlantic in November? What could go wrong? It honestly didn’t even occur to me to be apprehensive. Yet, I was truly amazed by the number of friends who felt compelled to remind us what had happened to the Titanic. I guess they thought we didn’t know—and that once we found out, we would reconsider. Not a chance. The cruise proved to be delightful—neither frightening nor dangerous (and even included some startlingly warm weather)—but the bonus for me was the dazzling five days we spent London, anticipating the cruise and seeing the sights. Samuel Johnson once said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. I think to anyone who’s been there, those words will ring true. Here are just a few highlights from an all-too-quick five days.

Home Base

We stayed at a hotel called the W, located just north of Trafalgar Square, adjacent to Chinatown. The W is flanked by casinos, coffee houses, and a candy store the size of Macy’s. Hence, the sidewalks swarm with foot traffic night and day. It doesn’t look like a hotel at all, so unless you’re a registered guest, you could very well walk right by, searching for the entrance. In a city of brick and stone, the W is wrapped in a silvery blue cocoon of frosted glass that makes it look less like a hotel and more like something out of Dr. Zhivago. The location—well, unless you can afford to be right smack on the Thames—is ideal. It’s within walking distance of countless favorite tourist destinations, restaurants, shops, wine bars, parks, and more.

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Trekkie, but beautiful!

Inside, the W is beautifully decorated, and spotlessly clean. It is run by some of the friendliest and most courteous hotel staff I’ve ever encountered. The Brits have impeccable manners. What’s distinctive about this hotel, however, is that it caters—according to the staff members themselves, who shared this in a conspiratorial whisper—to Millennials. I didn’t know quite what this meant or why they felt they had to share this insider’s knowledge until I stepped into our room. Ah. Contemporary doesn’t do it justice. It’s right out of Star Trek. The room is tiny and makes maximum use of space, so shelves and cubby holes abound, though they’re often camouflaged, and most furniture serves dual functions. A chair might double as a cupboard. The artwork and lamps are interchangeable. If it doesn’t glow, it’s probably art. The snack bar is a barrel. Think about it. Round shapes hold more. Mirrors everywhere create the illusion of spaciousness, and although this definitely works, it can be disarming to see yourself continuously. The bed is low, so it helps if you haven’t been cheating on your yoga. The lights and heating/cooling are all run from a central panel right by the entry. You want to practice before going to bed because it’s easy to get up at 3, feel your way to the panel, hit the wrong button, and instantly transform the entire room into a blinding display.

That's right--this IS the shower.

That’s right–this IS the shower.

There is no bathroom. Oh, there are facilities—they just aren’t located in a room. The toilet is in one tiny closet with a door that swings open. If you’re modest, well, you need to get over it—or maybe just write “occupied” on a Post-It and slap it on the mirrored door. The light is on a timer, and you have only two minutes from the time you swing the door open before the light goes out. That’s fast. And let me say, it gets very dark in there. The shower is in the adjacent closet. Or, to be more precise: The adjacent closet IS a shower. The closet door IS the shower door. Towels hang from a center island—right smack in the middle of the dressing/eating/hair-styling/living/sitting area. You step out of the shower into the midst of everything and drip your way to the towel rod—hoping anyone sitting there is a good buddy.

Face it. We’re boomers, my husband and I. We love cozy corners with fuzzy throws and books, lights you can turn on and off from your reading chair, bathrooms with doors, and towels you can reach without waving hello to the company. Somehow, I think the W folks knew all that. But never mind. Though my vision of luxury is different from that of the W designers, travel is much more about adventure than about comfort—or at least it should be. Plumbing that works, clean quarters, comfortable bed, courteous staff. Check, check, check, check. I’ll go back to the W any time I get the chance. W staff, thanks for an incredibly good (and comic) time.

Big Red

Of course, out-and-about London is where the real fun begins. We rode the Big Red Bus on the long tour, and enjoyed every second—even though passengers who heard us going “Ahhhhhh!” might have thought differently. We sat in the front seat, which allowed us to see how perilously close our bus was coming not only to other buses, but to cars, bikers, and pedestrians as well. Maybe an inch really is as good as a mile. At any rate, the native Londoners never looked alarmed, which was reassuring, so we got quieter as the ride went on.

Crossing London Bridge

Crossing London Bridge

The narrative on the bus is fascinating. We learned, among other things, that the Brits of old, while still mannerly, could also be a bloody bunch, routinely hanging people in public, sometimes hundreds on a given day. Each condemned man or woman was allowed to make a farewell speech, though no cursing or defamation of royalty was allowed—as that would be unseemly. Perhaps the best thing about the Big Red Bus is that you can hop on and off at will, making it easily the cheapest, fastest way to get to points of interest, such as the Tower of London, Abbey Road, or St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

A Touch of Shakespeare

How can you visit London without seeing Shakespeare’s Globe Theater? We couldn’t. It’s not the original, naturally—that burned in 1613. But it’s a striking new edition, located just blocks from where the original stood, and authentic inside and out, with the same heavy beams, winding wooden stairways, open air balconies, and majestic front-and-center stage visible from everywhere. Tours are led by members of the Globe acting company, who are incredibly well informed, animated, responsive to all comments and questions, and (at least in our case, with Kristin) hilariously funny.

IMG_1955Kristin informed us that the original theater had no restrooms. Remarkably, no one saw the need. They drank flagons of beer, however, since admission to the theater was only a penny, and for a penny more you could get a drink. Or you could bring your own and really economize. Those who stood on the ground in front of the stage (and that was the majority of viewers) simply relieved themselves on the spot—which of course, made for damp, malodorous conditions. Lavender, thyme, and other fragrant herbs were scattered abundantly to help compensate.

Perhaps the world's most iconic stage.

Perhaps the world’s most iconic stage.

How many people were injured when the original Globe burned? Kristin had us all guessing, but none of us were correct. The answer is none. Not one soul. However, three cloaks were burned and that made the London papers the following morning. Clothing was extraordinarily valuable in the 1600s. One poor fellow’s britches caught fire also, but he was quickly doused with beer—and luckily, that moment of indignity saved both him and the britches.

Open air--so it's closed October to May. Alas!

Open air–so it’s closed October to May. Alas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine, Candles, Kipling, and Dickens

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

Looking very confident BEFORE the cheese was delivered

On the recommendation of our good friend and my co-author, Jeff Hicks, we took time to seek out Gordon’s Wine Bar (gordonswinebar.com), located off Trafalgar Square, just up from the Thames River. Jeff had assured us that visiting here was less about wine than about the experience, and he couldn’t have been more right (even though the wine list is long enough to rival a phone directory). To enter, you go down rather steep stairs, and at first you cannot see a thing—including your feet. The whole place (except for the bar itself, which boasts one dim light) is lit by candles—small, well-used ones at that—so it takes some time for your eyes to adjust. Gordon’s is a cave, basically. It’s mostly stone—ceiling, walls, and floor, though there are a few wooden walls decorated with print memorabilia, some quite old.

IMG_1979The place opened in 1890, and is situated in Kipling House, home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680s. Both Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton are said to have written some of their works in the bar’s little parlor. It’s easy to imagine writers getting inspired in this place. Owners now describe it as Dickensian, but Alexandre Dumas also comes to mind. It is deliciously, irresistibly atmospheric, with funky wooden tables and chairs, none of them matching. Ceilings are low, and hazardous to those over 5’10”. I held my breath as one fairly tall, bald gentleman strolled happily by juggling several full glasses of wine.

If you enjoy good cheese, this is definitely your haunt. They boast numerous varieties (brie, chevre, dambuster, taleggio, Cotswold, gouda, cheddar, emmentaler, gruyere—my personal favorite—stilton, gorgonzola, and camembert, among others) and are happy to help you pair just the right wine with your selections. We came for lunch, so two slices of cheese sounded about right. Little did we know that at Gordon’s a “slice” is four ounces. And did I mention it comes with a small loaf of French bread? No one leaves hungry. In fact, if you clean your plate, it can be hard to leave at all. (We very nearly missed the production of “Wicked.” We had to run most of the way, which was cursedly uncomfortable, but probably in the end a good idea.) Gordon’s does not accept reservations, so it’s best to arrive on time. We got there just as the doors opened and for a few quiet minutes had our pick of inviting tables—all of which seemed to be tucked into cozy corners. Within less than an hour the place was packed and laughter was echoing off the stone walls. Thanks, Jeff, for one of the best recommendations ever.

 

What Acrophobia?

These days, any trip to London demands riding on the London Eye, one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels.

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

The Eye from Westminster Bridge

Lines are long, but if you reserve ahead, you can skip right to the reception desk and pick up your ticket—definitely the way to go. We did the champagne tour, which was more than worth the extra money. Instead of standing in a long queue, we waited in a beautiful lounge on a comfy couch, and were then escorted right through the crowds and onto the Eye.

The wheel never stops unless someone requires assistance getting on, so you step right on as it’s moving—thankfully, at a slow pace. It takes a half hour to do one rotation, and that’s the whole ride unless you make special arrangements. Each gondola is like a huge glass egg in a metal frame, and holds about 25 people, though our group included only 15 or so, making it easy to move about and take pictures. Seating is available in the center, but only those with the most acute acrophobia could tear themselves away from the spectacular views. Most of us were pressed right against the glass for the full half hour, as our guide Elvis pointed out various landmarks.

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

Best view in London. And look! A sunny day!

At the very top, you perch 450 feet above the Thames. From there, you can see nearly 30 miles in all directions. Several friends had told me they would never take this ride because they’re afraid of heights. Actually, the ride is both exhilarating and relaxing—and moves at such a leisurely pace that when you view the wheel from the Westminster Bridge, you can barely see it move. I was only fully aware of any motion as the ride neared its finish and I dreaded getting off. Gondolas are available for rent (two hours, or four rotations) to anyone wanting to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion . . . just saying, in case my husband is reading this . . .

 

Some Thoughts About Letters

Over the holidays, you may have spent some time thinking of what to give someone you love. It seems to me that one of the most thoughtful and personal of all gifts is also among the simplest—a letter.

This year, I received a number of letters, including a few form letters, but many emailed, typed, or handwritten just to me. Some were just a few lines—others went on for pages. They were filled with anecdotes, humorous moments, recipes (!), words of encouragement, and surprises. Each was a gift. Sue’s family had just welcomed two new grandchildren, while Becky’s was expecting the newest family member any day. Donna’s photos of her granddaughter (18 months) applying lipstick for the first time had me laughing uproariously. Leila made my mouth water as she described the elaborate Hawaiian and Japanese food she’d be cooking up for a holiday party. Bob and Kathie had just moved. Susan had a new job. Gail and Bill had adopted a rescue dog they named Boxit—because she’s been abused and so “boxes” herself in corners to feel safe. I wish them—and Boxit—all the best. And Sally wrote an inspiring letter, encouraging me to travel more, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s words: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Those words hung round me brighter than a golden necklace all holiday season, and made me feel as if I could go—well, anywhere. Isn’t that how great teachers always make you feel?Letters

Letter writing in the classroom is enjoying a hearty revival, and one I welcome because it is among the best ways to encourage voice. Here in Central Oregon, middle school students are participating in the Great American Mail Race. Language Arts students in Becky Aylor’s classes have written to more than 180 schools across the country—just this year. Some have written to students as far away as Greece, Turkey, Germany, and even China. They write their drafts longhand, then word process final drafts with help from 1:1 Chromebook and a computer program called Google Translate that can, with the click of a button, translate English text into any of numerous languages.

According to Aylor, the purpose of the race is to see who can receive the most responses—or a response from farthest away. As might be expected, the project not only increases students’ interest in writing, but also prompts discussions about geography, history, culture, and other topics. For many students (and this shouldn’t surprise us, really), this is the first encounter with the art of letter writing. They’ve never written one—never received one, either. They talk about basics like how to write an address properly, but also deeper concerns, like the value of a letter to the recipient.*

So . . . just a thought as we begin 2016. Lots of you will no doubt make holiday resolutions—save more money, work out routinely, read more . . . lose weight! All noble goals. But here’s one resolution you can keep for sure, with the knowledge it will touch someone’s life. Write at least one heart-felt letter to someone, anyone, who might love to receive it (and that’s nearly everybody). It is one of the truest ways to show love, friendship, compassion, or concern. It only takes a little time. And in this day of quick texting, an honest to goodness letter you can hold in your hands is a real treasure.

A few decades ago, a wise man named Garrison Keillor wrote an essay called “How to Write a Letter” (easy to find online, and well worth the search). In the long-gone days when writing assessment was an actual human activity, I used to read that essay aloud to raters who understood that students, like letter writers, were giving of themselves by putting their words on paper, and that such gifts must be honored. I especially loved Keillor’s closing remarks—“Probably your friend will put your letter away, and it’ll be read again a few years from now—and it will improve with age. And forty years from now your friend’s grandkids will dig it out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient eighties that gives them a sudden clear glimpse of you and her and the world we old-timers knew. You will then have created an object of art. Your simple lines about where you went, who you saw, what they said, will speak to those children and they will feel in their hearts the humanity of our times.”

 

* If you’d like more details about the Great Race project, please check NuggetNewspaper.com, and search “Keeping letter writing alive in Sisters.” Special thanks to Correspondent Erin Borla, from whose November 25 article this information was taken.

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Reading Recommendations

This is a new feature we’ll be including with most posts in 2016. Books listed here are not ones we’ll be reviewing on Gurus. They’re just recommended for your own personal, leisurely reading—and we urge you to look them up online for more information or to see what other readers have said:

  • The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Jeff is keeping busy teaching 5th graders and also teaching middle school math just for variety. We can be sure he’s also reading, however, so he’ll soon have books to share.

If you’ve ever attended any of my workshops, you’re likely a fan of Sneed Collard. I toted many of Sneed’s outstanding nonfiction books (Animal Dads, Pocket Babies, The Deep Sea Floor, and others) from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Hawaii. Those familiar with Sneed’s incredible body of work will be pleased to know that I will be reviewing his new autobiography Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. If you’re not a fan yet, please take time to look him up online or on Amazon. The sheer volume of his writing is impressive—and will make you look forward to discovering how this talented writer got his inspiration.Sneed portrait

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We are gaining new fans all the time, and we have you to thank! Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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Article referenced: “Omission: Choosing what to leave out” by John McPhee. The New Yorker, September 14, 2015. Pages 42-49.

Background

I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine. An actual physical copy of The New Yorker arrives in the mail each week, along with an email reminding me that I also have access to the new issue (and archives) online. I’ve been a subscriber for years, and every week when the new issue arrives, I follow a pretty set routine: I look carefully at the cover to see what current news story, seasonal event, national figure, pop culture icon, or holiday is being satirized, glorified, or honored, before I flip through the magazine, back to front, carefully reading each comic.  Of course, I check out the table of contents for articles of interest. I take the subscription card, which falls out anyway, and use it to bookmark the article I want to read first. It’s a great system, really. But there is a problem. The magazine is a weekly–a new issue comes each and every week. Each issue has multiple articles that tickle my interests and the authors explore their topics in great depth, which means the articles are often long. And did I mention that the magazine comes every week? Add to this the daily life interruptions of work, household chores, raking leaves, and the books I’m trying to finish reading, and what do you get? A backlog of New Yorkers stacked on my desk with subscription card bookmarks holding the places of articles I still want to read.

That is what happened to John McPhee’s wonderful article, “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” The September 14th issue got put into the stack and had to wait patiently for me to attack my backlog and discover this gem by a writer I’ve been reading for years. He has written books on all sorts of topics, and spent many years writing for Time and The New Yorker. Here are just a few of his book titles:

I can’t believe I nearly let this one stay buried in the stack for so long. If, as author McPhee says in this article, “Writing is selection,” then I want to select a few pieces of Mr. McPhee’s wisdom to share with you. My choices are based on connections to my classroom experience. I want to share what I know to be true from my time working with student writers.

1. “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language.” Being a six traits guy (after all, we are the Six Traits Gurus, not the Succulent Tomatoes Gurus or the Spruce Tree Gurus),  I have always suggested to students that, at it’s core, at it’s simplest and most basic, writing is word choice. I didn’t want my students to be stymied by the blank page (or blinking cursor) to the point where they became burdened or overwhelmed with trying to imagine an entire piece before they’d even started. It’s too easy for many students to let that blank page lead them to believe “I don’t have anything to write about.”

The instructional implications for teachers are many. Students need to have seen (through modeling) and experienced all sorts of pre-writing strategies–drawing, webbing, outlining, word caches, story telling, group writing, etc. Students need to have a toolbox of strategies, and yes, it needs to include both search (narrowing) and research skills to help them with any writing form.

Most students don’t have a million words immediately at their disposal (yet) in their speaking/listening/writing vocabularies. This means that building this vocabulary pool, while they’re in school, is a job that begins on day one. That means books, lots and lots of books, and it means reading and being read to. And it will require lots of conversation, meaningful conversation about the books. And it means noticing, sharing, and archiving (word walls, personal dictionaries, etc.) new and interesting word discoveries, then finding ways to use them in everyday speech.

Knowing they have a toolbox of strategies to dig into and that their vocabularies, their pools of word choices, are growing daily  will give them the confidence to be ready to choose that first word and set their writing in motion.

2. “Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in–if not, it stays out. Being able to “keep going” depends a great deal on the pre-writing work done by students, their understanding of the purpose of their writing, and an awareness of their audience for a particular piece.

I do appreciate his criterion, “If something interests you, it goes in…,” but I would add an audience/reader awareness proviso. If it interests you, it goes in, but now you have to write it so it interests your readers. This is where knowing both your purpose and your audience becomes important. If I am an expert on plumbing and I’m writing a technical manual for journeyman plumbers, I know my audience will want all the details I can provide, using all the plumber-ese jargon I know. You’re writing for experienced plumbers–your interests are most likely their interests. But if I’m the same expert, writing a basic plumbing repair/trouble shooting manual for do-it-yourselfers, all that interests me may be way more than what my audience is looking for.

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Author Rinker Buck, in his new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,  devotes more than a chapter delving into covered wagon design, mechanics, and even the physics of load stress. The topic is not only important to a book about pioneers in the 1800’s, it clearly interests the author. And I must say, at least for me, he makes it an incredibly interesting topic to read about. Mr. Buck invited me (the reader) inside his interest, carefully choosing words that informed, entertained, and even motivated me to read on. Wow! Mission accomplished! Here’s a taste:

It was a baby step, and it probably didn’t happen all at once. but, once the bolts or straps connecting the wagon box to the axle were removed, the physics were hugely advantageous. The wagon box now floated free, no longer rigidly bound to the axles…Bump, the harvested corn absorbs the shock. Bump, the cordwood rearranges itself. AT the end of a long day on the wagon seat, a farmer’s butt felt like roadkill. But the running gear and axles were intact. (The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. 2015. New York: Simon & Schuster. Page 69.)

3. “Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material–that much and no more. How many times have you been asked by a student in your writing classroom, How long does it have be? If you’ve heard it enough times, you probably have an answer ready to go. My answer was a always a question–I don’t know. How long is your idea? I wasn’t ever trying to be being glib or sarcastic. If I answered “500 words,” or “five paragraphs, or “two pages” those limits might not have had any relation to what the student wanted to share about an experience or had uncovered about a topic. I never wanted students to find themselves counting words, pages, or paragraphs to determine the end of their piece. I also know that when you know your students well, it’s important to know when to push particular students beyond their writing comfort zones or minimalist tendencies. So, for some students and for certain types of writing, I would stretch my usual response to the “How long?” question–I don’t know. How long is your idea? And for this piece, I really think that it will take more than five sentences/one paragraph/ one page to share your thinking or all that you know.

Helping students make this stretch, then, means going back to their toolbox of skills and strategies, making sure they know both how to narrow and expand a topic and do the necessary research or reflection to become an “expert” on their chosen topic. That way the amount of “selected material” they amass will be enough to drive their writing to it’s natural wrap-up point.

4. “From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.

“…I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”

(The underlining is mine, for emphasis.) I suppose that some would say that the process of “deciding what goes into” a piece of writing and “deciding what to leave out” is really the same process–different sides of the same coin, perhaps. I just think it’s important with student writers to make it an extremely thoughtful process, where the writer is fully aware of the criteria filters they’re using as each decision is made. If I want to write about how shark behavior is misunderstood by humans, and I’ve done my research like Mr. McPhee suggests in the article by gathering “say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use,” I’m going to have some decisions about which “stuff” makes the final cut. I may even decide that some of my “stuff” needs further exploring before making that decision.With my audience and purpose firmly in mind, I’ll need to do some sorting. Here are a few examples of some of the “shark behavior is misunderstood by humans” stuff I uncovered. See which bits you might keep, toss, or mark for further exploration. What do you think should be your filters–on topic/off topic, common knowledge/”new” information, etc.?

___ Sharks live in the ocean.

___ Sharks have many teeth.

___ In Hawaii, many believe in amakua, ancestors/family members who have died and come back in another form. Sharks are often revered as amakua.

___ Goldfish are believed to have an attention span of about nine seconds.

What could happen to readers if I included too much “common” knowledge, stuff that readers most likely already know?

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Author Barry Lopez, spoke recently at Wordstock, Portland, Oregon’s literary festival. As reported in the November 8, 2015 Oregonian, “He (Lopez) described thinking as he wrote Arctic Dreams that readers didn’t need to be told the region is beautiful–they know that–but that if he could describe precisely what he had seen and felt, ‘put my right hand in the small of that person’s back and show them that,’ then he could open that world to them.” In the classroom, helping students to “describe precisely” (ideas, word choice) what each of them has “seen and felt” (voice) is at the core of effective trait-based writing instruction.

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5. A Tower of Giraffes: Animal Bunches by Anna Wright. 2015. Watertown: Charlesbridge. This picture book is not mentioned in The New Yorker article by John McPhee, but I want to mention it now for use in the classroom–any classroom. The book begins by informing readers about collective nouns. A definition is offered–“a term that describes a group of individuals (e.g., troop, gaggle, flock).” What follows is a selection of examples of collective nouns from the animal kingdom–A Herd of Elephants, A Drove of Pigs, etc., accompanied by a 3-4 sentence explanation of the specific collective noun in question and a distinctive, artful illustration.

The book’s format is perfect for imitation–asking students to “research” a favorite animal’s collective noun, “scooping up” more information than what they will need, making decisions about what to keep and what to leave out, before choosing the first word to begin their own writing.

It’s a fantastic book to emphasize and practice, at the student writer level, the wisdom of a professional writer.

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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Happy holidays to you and your families! We will be back in January,2016–wow, another year zoomed by! Vicki has been traveling and I’ve been back in the classroom as an occasional substitute teacher, and of course, we’ve been reading, so we’ll have lots to share in the new year. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please continue to let your friends know about us, too. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter–@VickoriaSpandel, @jeffhicks156. And remember . . . to set up your very own writing workshop or a fun classroom demo involving your own students, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

I’m going to be a travel writer in my next life. Travelers—regardless of where they go—never run out of writing topics.

My husband and I (with good friends from Nebraska) were lucky enough to visit Australia and New Zealand this past January and February. This was to be the trip of a lifetime, and it took us over eight years to plan it, save up, and make it happen. It was worth every moment of planning and every penny spent. If you’ve been lucky enough to go yourself, then you know. If not, I hope you get the chance.

In a Sunburned Country

In part, this trip was Bill Bryson’s fault. In 2000, Bryson wrote a book called In a Sunburned Country. I discovered it in an airport bookstore some years ago, and fell in love. This book was a gift from the voice gods. I laughed until I cried through most of it (making other airline passengers desperately jealous) and wished fervently that Bill lived nearby and would drop over now and then to chat. Most of all, I wished that I could somehow, some way, get to Australia. Among my favorite passages was this one (page 6), which I would go on to share in countless workshops, and which (I don’t doubt for a moment) prompted teachers across America to buy Bryson’s book (and perhaps, to plan their own visit down under):

[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.

Who could resist booking the next flight? I learned a great deal about Australia from In a Sunburned Country, but I also learned a thing or two about writing. Bryson doesn’t try to tell everything. He picks his moments and details carefully, and he never glosses things over as many travel writers do. Also, he never settles for big, sweeping generalities: e.g., Australia sure is vast! He has a knack for digging up the little known details—the toxic caterpillars, the attacking seashells.

Throughout our trip, I asked myself (as I was having the time of my life), Which of these experiences would I write about if I did my own travel book? Following are the six I chose. I’m presenting the “sweeping generalities” version first to emphasize the difference. (Students will often say things like, “I gave you details—I told you Australia was vast!”) What they don’t realize is, that’s an introductory comment that leaves readers wanting the story lurking underneath.

Highlight 1: Showering at Sea

The Sweeping View: Showering on a ship can be tricky!

The details . . .

We spent a few days cruising from Auckland in northern New Zealand down to Milford Sound, then across the Tasman Sea to Australia. One of the many things you learn while cruising is how to keep your balance when the floor is constantly moving. Another is to adapt to living in a small space. The truth is, most of us probably occupy far more space than we need throughout our lives, but at sea humans quickly learn to fit all essentials into a room of less than 200 square feet. And why not? It holds a bed, couch, two chairs, a television, storage cupboards, a closet, dresser and mirror, refrigerator, and bathroom with toilet, sink, shelving, and . . . a 2-foot by 2-foot shower.

IMG_0282Admittedly, unless you’re exceptionally slim, the shower is a tight fit. In fact, a better motivator to lose weight I’ve yet to experience. (Trying on tight swimsuits under fluorescent lighting is a poor second.) You don’t want to twirl around, and you don’t want to stick your elbows out. No vigorous lathering either. Within moments, you learn to keep your feet slightly apart and to keep one hand on the wall-mounted handle bar or one of the fixtures at all times. Lose your balance on a big wave, and you’ll get a nasty spurt of extremely hot or cold water or a mouthful of shampoo (if you’ve gotten that far). I had trouble only on the Indian Ocean sailing from Esperance to Perth, when we hit the largest waves of our trip. They’re unpredictable, and you cannot time them. (Wonderful for sleeping—not so good for standing in wet places.)

It isn’t easy getting shampoo out with one hand (because you’re holding on with the other); the trick I learned is to pre-loosen the cap prior to getting in. “Shower prep,” which became a new routine, included pre-loosening all shower product caps, turning the shower head so overly cold or hot water wouldn’t hit you directly—you do need to get in before you turn the shower on so you don’t wind up flooding the floor—and of course, placing your towel within easy reach, keeping in mind that lurching toward the sink is likely to be your exit style. If you drop the shampoo or shower gel while you’re still showering, you can bend over to get it (not recommended), or squat down (you have to let go of your “safety handle” though), or just wait until you’re done and retrieve it when you get out (the best option). I should mention that my husband and I both quickly learned to shower in under three minutes.

Highlight 2: Here Comes the Sun

The Sweeping View: Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound, and Milford Sound are beautiful, though seldom sunny.

The details . . .

“This is your captain, speaking to you from the bridge.” These words, in our captain’s soon-familiar Greek accent, greeted us daily, and were usually followed by a routine summation of our longitude, latitude and cruising speed. On one memorable occasion, though, the captain added these words—rarely heard by anyone at sea: “If Captain Cook had encountered this weather when he entered Dusky Sound, he would have named it something else.”

We entered Dusky Sound just at dawn, encountering clouds and mist—and were told this was typical, that the beauty of the area was due after all to the daily rain. It was still beautiful, especially when clouds opened just enough to let ethereal sunlight streak through. The ship slowed to a speed of 7 or 8 knots, creating a floaty, dreamlike feeling.

Within two hours, as if on cue, the clouds had all but departed, devoured by the sun. People who had been huddling in the top deck viewing room to keep dry now flooded the outer walkways, cameras and cell phones in hand. Getting a spot at the railing (any railing) became immediately difficult, and walking without blocking someone’s photographic shot of a lifetime was impossible. Beautiful spots are frequently described as breathtaking, but on this day, I learned the true meaning of that word. Gasps were literally audible everywhere, and people spoke in whispers, as if entering a sanctuary.

IMG_0404The captain later told us that in his 20 years of cruising the sounds (which he does multiple times per season), he had never, not even once, witnessed a day such as this, never seen azure blue skies in any of the fjords—and never expected to do so again in his lifetime. We’d been cautioned to wear jackets and sweaters. I never unpacked mine, and basking in the sun, was thankful for the thin shirt I’d bought on a whim in Honolulu before our flight.

The captain also mentioned that had it been raining, as per usual, we’d have seen many more waterfalls in this uninhabited paradise. I don’t think anyone missed them.

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Highlight 3: Criminal Justice

The Sweeping View: Australia was settled by convicts.

The details . . .

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison. (Bryson, page 6).

Our first stop in Australia was Sydney. Sydney is a feast for the senses. The harbor is a perpetual motion machine, filled with every sort of vessel imaginable from kayaks to cruise ships, with ferry boats of all sizes, yachts, catamarans, and sailboats all vying for space, juggling their way through an intricate mesh of oceanic right-of-way rules. Coffee. The aroma is everywhere. And (sorry, Starbucks) it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Almost good enough to skip the cream. Almost. (And if you ask for cream, you get whipped cream—ask for milk and you’re just as likely to get half and half, which is admittedly much better.) Music plays along the quays, and it is hauntingly good—everything from country to classical, right there on the walkways, with best guitarists, drummers, violin and base players imaginable. Breweries and pubs abound, all atmospheric and bustling with visitors and locals. That irresistible Aussie accent is everywhere, but there’s an intermingling of German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and other languages I didn’t quickly recognize. To say it’s picturesque is like describing Santa as a chap who favors red. It’s also overwhelming. So the best place to begin (especially for newbies like us) seemed to be an overview tour.

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As we quickly discovered, Aussie (pronounced OZ-ee in Australia, not Aw-see, as we Americans typically say) tour guides are extremely well-informed about history—British, American, and Australian. They laugh (good naturedly, never in a mean spirited way) at our inability to answer questions like, Who was Lafayette? A favorite topic (for them and for us as listeners) is how Australia got its start as a penal colony. I’d had a vague vision of this: killers, hoodlums, embezzlers and jewel thieves chained to ships, dumped on the rocks, and left to make their way as best they could. Amazingly, I got the rocks part right. And there is to this day a section of Sydney known as The Rocks, now filled with breweries, pubs, boutique shops and other touristy hangouts. But most of the story I got wrong. As it so happens, “convicts” in the bad old glory days of the UK were often imprisoned for such petty offenses as stealing a button. No kidding. As in What are you in for? Answer: Button theft. Most of these original settlers were anything but dangerous.

Originally, British convicts were sent to America. America got fed up with this practice, however, and told the UK in so many words to find another location for their deportees. “What about that big island way down south?” some Brit suggested, and the idea of settling Australia in this unconventional manner was born. It was not without its problems.

First off, the idea was not to imprison these convicts, but to put them to work—herding sheep or cattle, farming, manufacturing, and so on. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have a trade and knew nothing of farming or ranching. Being game isn’t enough when it comes to farming; you have to know what you’re doing. The early settlers began plowing fields and sowing seed in April, as they had in England. But the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed, so the first few crops were abysmal failures.

This state of affairs led to Plan B, requesting ONLY those convicts who had a trade or useful agricultural experience—including medical people, teachers, cooks, farmers, boot makers, blacksmiths, and so forth. (To this day, both Australia and New Zealand continue the practice of asking prospective immigrants to demonstrate precisely, and in elaborate detail, how they plan to contribute to the society’s economy before considering admittance. I know this because I asked—and yes, I did consider moving.) Being assigned to Australia became a sort of mark of achievement.

You may be wondering how it works to simply turn convicts loose to pursue their careers. Well, remember, most were not particularly menacing. Further, confinement wasn’t really necessary. There was no point in running away because (as Bill Bryson so clearly points out), survival outside the city limits was impossible. Of those few who did attempt escape, none survived. Not one.

You know how the story goes . . . if you’re not chomped by sharks or crocodiles . . . Oh, and we should also mention that Australia is home to some impressive spiders. Hold out your hand, fingers splayed. That’s about the size. Not to mention the snakes . . . and then there’s that lack of water . . .

Highlight 4: The Sydney Opera House

The Sweeping View: The Sydney Opera House is spectacular.

The details . . .

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The Sydney Opera House is impossible to overlook. Like Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo,” it simply exudes class and grace. It’s impossibly gorgeous from every angle. The first question our tour guide asked us, majestically swinging her arm in the direction of the roof: “What do these architectural features remind you of?” Wings, some said. Sails, others offered. Officially, they’re known as shells. Whatever you call them, photographers cannot get enough. The opera house may well be the most photographed landmark on earth.

The day we were lucky enough to visit, a lot was happening. In the Concert Hall, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing music from Faust. The Concert Hall also houses the world’s largest pipe organ; gleaming gold, it’s roughly the size of the average American living room. In the Joan Sutherland Theater, singers and actors were preparing to stage another production. Usually, groups are not allowed to enter either theater because groups make noise—and even the tiniest noise distracts both actors and musicians. For some reason (maybe we looked unusually orderly) we got to go in both. (First sun in the fjords—and now this.)

We put on headphones to hear the tour guide, who could not raise her voice above a whisper. The acoustics (thanks to the lush Australian birch wood interior) are such that the slightest breath, shuffle of feet, or flick of a gum wrapper can be heard throughout either of the main theaters, so we were firmly cautioned not to speak at all and to step as quietly as if sneaking past a sleeping tiger.

One or two at a time, we slipped sideways into the upper balcony of the Joan Sutherland Theater through a black velvet curtain so enormous and heavy you expected at any moment to encounter the Phantom of the Opera. Upon entering, we had to quickly (and silently) pull the curtain closed behind us to shut out all light. The theater itself (except for the stage) was so dark and steep that I felt certain I would trip on the invisible stairs. Inch by inch, toe by toe, I felt my way up to a cushy seat in the top balcony, my husband insistently tugging me along (He can see in the dark). Though I was as far back and high up from the stage as you could get, I could see and hear every word the director spoke as he moved actors about the set. The sets, incredibly elaborate and colorful, are done on a huge elevator platform a full floor below the stage, then raised up for each performance. This ingenious approach allows the Opera House to schedule, say, Madame Butterfly for the afternoon, then perhaps Faust for the evening—simply by rolling a new platform into place and raising it to stage height.

IMG_0545After exiting as silently as possible, we went outdoors for a close-up look at those magnificent shells. That iconic white roof is not painted, as many people think. It’s composed of 1,000,050 tiles—from snowy white to mellow cream. They reflect light in such a way as to give the roof its perpetually dazzling appearance, whether in sun or the glow of floodlights that illuminate it every evening. Unexpectedly, the tiles are cool to the touch, even under the intense heat of Australia’s famously relentless sun.

The Opera House, we learned, was designed by world-renowned architect Jørn Utzon of Denmark. His design was one of one of 233 entries in a competition, and ironically enough, was at first rejected. Several architects, however, kept circling back to Utzon’s design, seeing it as more visionary than bizarre, and in 1957, he was proclaimed the winner. Whatever they saw in Utzon’s design was later recognized by others, and in 2003, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The citation read as follows:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is [Utson’s] masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.

Indeed, for many it is a symbol of creativity itself. Receipt of this well-deserved prize had to be bittersweet, however, for it followed years of controversy and tension between Utzon and the SOHEC (Sydney Opera House Executive Committee). Ultimately, some funds intended to pay his workers were withheld, and Utzon resigned from the project—though he was later brought back as a consultant. It seems some people are irreplaceable after all. Sadly, though, he never got to see (except in photos) the fully completed building that was undoubtedly his work of genius. Utzon was not even present at the opening and dedication by Queen Elizabeth in October of 1973. The Opera House was originally slated to cost $7 million and scheduled to be finished in 1963. It was not completed until ten years later, and wound up costing a whopping $102 million.

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We left Sydney at night, when (to my eye) the harbor is at its most exquisite. I felt a genuine physical ache as I watched the harbor landmarks shrink and the lights dim in the ship’s wake. The last thing I recall seeing as we pulled out of port was the Sydney Opera House, stunningly situated between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Royal Botanical Gardens. A proper setting for an empress.

Highlight 5: A Living Dinosaur

The Sweeping View: The cassowary is a very large bird, descended from dinosaurs.

The details . . .

Prior to visiting Australia, I doubt I’d have known much about cassowaries were it not for a remarkable book called Birdology by one of my all-time favorite authors, Sy Montgomery. The whole book is fascinating, but I was especially intrigued by the chapter “Birds Are Dinosaurs,” which details Montgomery’s research on cassowaries, and her encounters with them in Queensland. In her introduction to this remarkable creature (page 49), she explains,

To the nimble likes of predatory Velociraptors, birds owe their speed and their smarts. To dinosaurs, they owe their otherworldly appeal—and as well, surely, some of their transcendent mystery and beauty. For this is one of the great miracles of birds, greater, perhaps, than that of flight: when the chickens in my barnyard come to my call, or when I look into the sparkling eye of a chickadee, we are communing across a gap of more than 300 million years.

Cassowaries are big. By bird standards, huge. The largest can weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Like ostriches, they walk (stride is more accurate) or run. They cannot fly (anymore—they could once), and if they could fly, it’s daunting to imagine the wings that would be required. Happily, they are mostly vegetarian, largely because they have no teeth. They do stomp and devour both lizards and rats. They also forage for berries and seeds—and have been seen gazing at butterflies, just before eating them. Though they don’t seek out larger prey, they are more than capable of defending themselves, thanks to sharp killing claws (very reminiscent of Jurassic Park). When it feels threatened, the cassowary (which already towers over most creatures, including shorter people), can leap an impressive five feet into the air and come down with deadly force, using this lethal claw like a knife, eviscerating whatever is unfortunate enough to be standing too close. In fact, these birds have been known to kill people, though lethal attacks are rare. They are highly protective of their chicks and eggs, and cassowaries will charge and even strike if they perceive that their young are in danger or their nests are about to be robbed. Interestingly, it’s the male that guards the eggs and raises the chicks to adolescence—when they are evicted. Once the nest is built and the eggs laid, the female leaves home. (Yes, I do know what you’re thinking—and you’re not the first.)

Unless you live in the Queensland rain forest, the odds of glimpsing a cassowary in the wild are small. We did, though—through the window of our tour bus. This bird had just strolled casually across the road right in front of the bus, unaware and fearless. They don’t imagine anything can hurt them (though whether this is the result of confidence or simple lack of imagination I can’t say), and most cassowaries that die in the wild are killed by buses or cars, though occasionally one is done in by exceptionally ferocious dogs (When dogs and cassowaries meet, the odds are in the bird’s favor).

IMG_1077I didn’t get a photo that day—wrong side of the bus. But I did come eye to eye with several cassowaries at a wildlife sanctuary outside Sydney, en route to the famous Blue Mountains. I must say, there is no warmth in that gaze. None. This is clearly not a pet, nor does this bird exhibit the slightest interest in or curiosity about humans. They notice us the way we might notice, say, an ant. Unless we happen to be roadblocks (not advised), potential threats or conveyors of food, we are simply elements of the ever changing landscape. There is no sign on the cassowary compound saying “Don’t touch,” but I doubt most people would need to be warned. Those ancient eyes are warning enough.

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Highlight 6: Hugging (mostly thinking of hugging) a wallaby

The Sweeping View: Wallabies are adorable!

And now for the details . . .

Kangaroos are masters of their domain, and as such, command attention and respect. They become tame quickly if food is about, and more than once at various roadstops we were warned not to approach too close or attempt to pet them. Kangaroos can be extremely aggressive, even hostile. They are impatient if food isn’t forthcoming. They don’t bite—they kick. And when they kick, they mean it, and they can cause serious injury.IMG_1127

Wallabies, on the other hand, are extremely shy creatures. They are less than half the size of even small kangaroos, and look downright cuddly. If they were stuffed toys, you’d want to take them home even if you didn’t have any kids. Like kangaroos, they love treats and enjoy being hand fed. But unlike kangaroos, they don’t demand anything, and will wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . making sure you are friendly.

The Featherdale Wildlife Park (near the Blue Mountains) that housed the cassowaries also had wallabies—many of them. Unlike the cassowaries, which are confined (thank heavens), the wallabies roam freely, and you can talk to them, pet them (if you’re lucky enough to get that close), and feed them. The sanctuary staff don’t want them eating pretzels and jelly beans (sold to tourists in great quantities), so they stuff “wallaby food” (a dried, seedy grass) into ice cream cones. You hold a cone, and if you’re lucky, a wallaby will come up and eat from it.

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It took a lot of coaxing to get that first wallaby to approach me. I knelt down low, talking to it in much the way you might talk to a kitten or puppy. He was very unsure, but in time, he did come up to me and take that first nibble. Wallabies are careful eaters. They don’t take big bites, and they chew for a long while. This helps a small amount of food last long enough that you can reach out ever so slowly and stroke that divinely soft fur—softer than mink. Their front paws are like tiny hands, and they will reach out to hold the food as they take a bite.

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When nothing dire happened to Wallaby #1, the others gained courage. In moments, I had two feeders, then three, and finally four. I would have had more, but by then I was out of food. Indeed, one of the wallabies reached out and took the final remnant in his “hands.” I discovered quickly that wallabies (at least these wallabies—conditioned through months of cone training) don’t really favor dried grass. Who can blame them? They prefer the cones, and eat that part almost exclusively. Also, they have very sharp front teeth, top and bottom (needed in the wild to munch grasses), and though they are anything but aggressive, you do want to be careful where you place your fingers on the cone. On a trip of incredible adventures, it was unquestionably my wallaby encounter that stood out most.

In conclusion . . .

I could have written about so many other things, among them . . .

  • Watching kangaroos bound over the fields outside Melbourne.
  • Seeing a mother crocodile guard her nest along the Daintree River.
  • Dealing with a sink (in Port Douglas) that would not behave, and continuously left us soaking wet.
  • Having toilets on board ship cease flushing (luckily, this didn’t last too long).
  • Eating heavenly gelato on Manly Beach—after riding the half-hour ferry from Sydney.
  • Having residents of Auckland not only direct us but actually guide us to a local drugstore. The people of New Zealand are not just courteous and friendly, they’re sensitive and kind. All the time.
  • Learning that Australian snakes, while deadly, are also shy and will depart when they sense vibrations from your footsteps—and then being told to “stay on the path” anyway. Shy. Not going to test that theory.
  • Circling Alice Springs for over an hour because our plane was “too heavy to land” and we had to burn up heavy fuel.
  • Landing in Alice Springs and wishing I were still in the air conditioned plane (just kidding).
  • Walking through Hyde Park to the Botanical Gardens and experiencing the only downhill moving walkway I’ve ever encountered—so fast you are literally launched off the end.
  • Riding the world’s steepest railway in the scenic Blue Mountains.
  • Looking up into the sky far out at sea and realizing I had never, ever really seen stars . . .

. . . and too many more things to list. I chose these six because they’re the ones I keep reliving. And because when friends ask about our trip, most of my stories hearken back to one of these adventures.

What if you haven’t been to Australia??

By the way, I don’t believe for a moment that you have to visit Australia or New Zealand to have something to write about. One of my favorite essays EVER (student or professional) was written by an eighth grader and titled “Parking with Dad.” It described in hilarious detail the tedium of endlessly circling parking lots to find that “perfect” parking spot where nothing could happen to Dad’s car. Whether our travels take us to Australia or K-Mart, there are always things that stand out. Learning to recognize those moments or experiences (whether they last a minute or a day) is important for any writer.

Something to Try

Here’s something to try with your students: Have them list things, big and small, that happen over a specified period of time—a weekend, a week, a month, whatever. Shoot for a list of 50-100 with older students, 10-20 with younger. Then ask them to identify three they could write about. Do this with them so you can share your list, which (I guarantee) they will love. You (and your students) can write about these highlights or not. But do share the lists (or selections) with others, and ask them to help you identify the ones they’d most like to hear about—this is nearly always a surprise. The purpose of the exercise is to talk about why certain choices stand out for us, and what makes for a “good” writing topic. Where do we get our writing ideas? From life.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re going to take a small hiatus, allowing ourselves (and you) a welcome summer break! Please enjoy it to the fullest, and if you even think of going to Australia or New Zealand, we would love to hear about it. Meantime, Jeff and I will be reading some fascinating books and preparing to share them with you beginning sometime in August. We can’t tell you the titles because the excitement would be too much—but you won’t be disappointed! As always, thank you for stopping by. Don’t forget us over the summer, and please come back often and bring friends. 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. And please . . . Give every child a voice.