Tag Archive: literature

Last Stop On Market Street



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

Genre: Picture book

Ages: Grades K-2 (and up)



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

In the Classroom

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

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

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


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

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

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

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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



Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now


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

Genre: Novel

Ages: Grades 6-9

Review by Jeff Hicks


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


Inside Your Classroom

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

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

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


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

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


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

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

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

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

            It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.

            The most beautiful. (Page 19)

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

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

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

                        wide, eighteen tiles long.

            One rack with sixteen copper pots and pans hanging over

                        a woodblock table.

            Four yellow stools around the woodblock table.

            Twelve glass cupboards—all white inside. You could

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

                        and you would have had plenty of room left over.

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

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

                        gle one chipped. (Page 49)

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


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

The Vietnam War

-Soldiers returning home


-Treatment of veterans

-Comparison to World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan

Space Exploration

-Apollo missions

-Landing on the moon

-Manned, unmanned missions

-“The Space Race”

Sports Stars/Heroes

-Joe Pepitone, Horace Clark

-Sports stars as role models

-Sports memorabilia


-Compared to today—salaries, television, social media

John James Audubon

-Bird research


-Etching, watercolor

-Audubon Society

-Endangered Species


-Importance of art

Broadway Plays

-New York City

-Adapting novels to plays

-Acting as a profession

-Role of producer

-Stagecraft—sets, lighting, costumes, etc.


-Books vs. “electronic” reading

-Importance in communities today vs. years ago

-Funding advocacy

Rights of the Disabled

-Handicap access—ramps, elevators, etc.

Community Activism

-Preserving history, landmarks, traditions

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

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

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

About the author . . .


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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m working on a couple things—a review of Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, and some commentary on Thomas Newkirk’s thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.


Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images-1  imgres-2

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

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

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

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

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


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff (me) will be reviewing one (or more—I can’t decide) of the following fascinating books: Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50:Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross (the book’s slip cover unfolds into a map!), or When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill. In the meantime, if reading this or any of our other 134 informative posts has you thinking about professional development in writing instruction during the remainder of this school year, we can help. Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can make it happen. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

In Just One Lifetime


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

Figure Skating:

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

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


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

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

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

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

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

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



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

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

Grade Levels: K and up

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

40 pages (including back matter)

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


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

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

 In the Classroom

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

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

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

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


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

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

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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


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


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

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

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





Summer Reading–Relax, There’s Still Time!

For some reason, I imagine that my summers will float along at a leisurely pace, especially when it comes to summer reading—family outings to the coast where I’m reading in a chair on a deck, quiet mornings at home reading on the patio with my coffee, camping adventures reading by a crackling fire. I don’t know how summers go for you, but for me, my plans always seem to be grander than what the actual limits of the season could possibly allow. Things always seem to come up—the breakdown of a major home appliance, a tree limb falling on a Sunday evening leading to an unplanned fencing project and, to paraphrase the famous John Lennon line, “Son returning home from college for the summer is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” My stack of summer reading books topples as it crashes into the spontaneous hair-pin turns of the joys of home ownership and the last minute plan changes of a nineteen year old attempting to milk his summer for all it’s worth before returning to school in September. Deep breath…Again…There.

It really isn’t that bad. Spontaneous is good for someone who can get a bit routinized. All it means really is that you have to prioritize your reading with informed selections narrowed down by the experience of someone you can trust. Hopefully, you can trust me. Here are a few books I heartily recommend (I believe you will like them and might even find a place for them in your classroom) for reading this summer by the ocean, with morning coffee, or by a campfire. Or really, anytime, such as when you’ve finished mopping up after the eighteen year old leaking dishwasher, waiting for the new one to be delivered between 1 and 5, or after being informed at 11 PM that your nineteen year old son wants to go camping, like now, and if you know where his tent and sleeping bag are…Deep breath…Again…There.

Clare Vanderpool, the author of Navigating Early, one of my recommended books, suggests on her website that, “Good writing starts with good reading. And remember, variety is good. Read anything and everything from historical to contemporary, fantasy, science fiction and fairy tales. Learn from everything you read…” I haven’t included any lesson ideas, mention of the six traits, or links to CCSS (but it would have been easy to). Read for your own enjoyment, but don’t be surprised if a few classroom connections linger pleasantly in your mind. When you “Learn from everything you read,” it’s hard to keep it to yourself.


9780545176866_p0_v1_s260x420 Drawing From Memory. 2011. Allen Say. New York: Scholastic Press. 63 pages.
Genre: Picture book/graphic autobiography of the Caldecott Award winning author/illustrator
Ages 10 and up

If you are not familiar with Allen Say’s art and stories, you might want to take a moment to check out Grandfather’s Journey (1993 Caldecott Medal), Home of the Brave, Tree of Cranes, The Lost Lake, A River Dream, to get you started.  Drawing From Memory is Allen Say’s own story of growing up in Japan and becoming an artist, told in illustrations, photographs, and words, using a graphic novel—ish approach. Many of the illustrations are actually drawn from memory—he burned many of his drawings and sketchbooks before coming to America. This is a book about following your passion regardless of the obstacles and perfect for any aspiring artists (either in your school or in your home). Believing that artists were not respectable people, Allen’s father discouraged his artistic talents. Fortunately, Allen found other adults, including his mother, who were more supportive of his passion for drawing. At the age of thirteen, in fact, Allen becomes an apprentice to Noro Shinpei, his favorite cartoonist, a life-changing event. Noro, who Allen referred to as Sensei (master or teacher), helped Allen develop his artistic skills and focus his passion. Sensei said, “Drawing is never a practice. To draw is to see and discover…Painting is a kind of writing, and writing is a kind of painting—they are both about seeing.” Whether your students call you Sensei, Teacher, Mom or Dad, this book reminds us about the power of being a mentor and encouraging the kind of perseverance it takes to become the artist, writer, engineer, or scientists our mentees passionately want to be.

For more about Allen Say:


 9781250012579_p0_v1_s260x420Eleanor & Park. 2013. Rainbow Rowell. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. 328 pages.

Genre: YA realistic fiction
Grades 9-12

I have often avoided books about teenagers in love, not because I don’t like teenagers or because I’m against love. I’ve taught, coached, and mentored teenagers for years. I want to go on record as being pro-teenager, pro-love and even, at times, pro-teenagers in love. I have a teenager, and I believe he’s been in love, once for sure, while in high school. My dilemma is that the stories, for me, don’t often ring true. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell rings very true. True language, true behaviors, true desires, and true feelings. (Take this as a heads-up if you are a nervous reader when it comes to cursing or teen hormones.) The characters in this book are not the stock football heroes and cheerleaders. Park is a freshman, into his comic books, marshal arts, and cool music. He’s got his seat on the bus staked out, and he tries to block out the other kids and their drama with his headphones and Walkman (it’s 1986). He’s got a system for not being noticed, and it works. Eleanor is new to town and school, and apparently trying hard to be noticed with her strange clothing and …”crazy hair, bright red on top of curly.” Compounding her awkward walk down the bus aisle on the first day of school is the fact that Eleanor doesn’t have a seat on the bus—any available seats are made clearly unavailable with harsh looks and snide comments. The “&” in Eleanor & Park begins at this moment when Park, without total awareness of the “why” of his actions, moves towards the window, opening up a spot, and commands her to “Sit down,” the only words spoken between them that day. Their friendship and, later, love doesn’t blossom overnight (and it even involves exchanging mix-tapes—remember those!) and it’s definitely not love at first sight. There are outside forces (bullying, parents, step-parents) and inner turmoil (dealing with feelings that are difficult to name and explain) working against each of them, but that’s part of what makes the truth of their story ring so loudly.

For more about Rainbow Rowell:


9781442408920_p0_v5_s260x420Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. 2013. Benjamin Alire Saenz. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR. 359 pages.

Genre: YA realistic fiction (romance, LGBT)
Grades 9-12

Stonewall Book Award—2013, Printz Honor—2013, YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best Fiction for Young Adults (Top Ten)—2013, Pura Belpre Author Award—2013

That’s quite a trophy case! And it’s a book about teenagers in love! And, like Eleanor & Park, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe rings true, loud, clear, and from the rooftops. True language, true behaviors, true desires, and true feelings. (Yes, this is a repeat from the last review, but there are so many similarities.) This book made me cry—more than once and for different reasons. The friendship between these two boys begins when they meet at the city pool in El Paso, Texas; they’re fifteen and seem to have very little in common. Over the next couple of years, however, Ari Mendoza and Dante Quintana build a very special friendship as each grows to understand not only his individual place in the world but also what they mean to each other. The issue of identity is at the heart of this story—cultural identity, self-identity, and sexual identity. At one point in the book, Ari reflects, “Maybe that’s the way it worked. High school was just a prologue to the real novel. Everybody got to write you—but when you graduated, you got to write yourself. At graduation you got to collect your teacher’s pens and your parent’s pens and got your own pen. And you could do all the writing. Yeah. Wouldn’t that be sweet?”  Bittersweet, perhaps, because putting the pen in your own hand and “writing yourself” can be pretty scary, too, as both boys learn. The author takes his time with these characters, not rushing the pace of their self-discovery and journey to manhood. To help them deal with their internal struggles and the harsh realities of the world, he surrounds them with realistic and supportive parents and families who work hard to protect their boys and understand them.

For a bit more about Benjamin Alire Saenz (author of prose and poetry), including a reading group guide for Aristotle and Dante:


9780385742092_p0_v1_s260x420Navigating Early. 2013. Clare Vanderpool. New York: Delacorte Press. 306 pages.
Genre: YA realistic fiction
Grades 6-8

If the author’s name rings a bell it’s because she is the 2011 Newberry Award winning writer of Moon Over Manifest. On her website, she says that you never know where a good writing idea is going to come from. The idea for Moon Over Manifest came from the title of a book with a “very cool cover” and a quote from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The idea behind Navigating Early started with a dream her mother had about a boy, who with no musical training could play anything on the piano after only a single listen. (Wow! I guess that means we’ve all probably missed some pretty great ideas because we weren’t on the lookout for them.) I’m glad she listened to her mother tell about her dream. It launched a grand adventure tale involving a bear, rattlesnakes, the Appalachian Trail, river pirates, mountain men, the search for a legendary hero, Billie Holiday when it’s raining, and just to make things interesting, the number pi—you know, 3.141592653589…

In Navigating Early, we meet Jack Baker, a young man who is moved from Kansas, following his mother’s death, to a Maine boarding school, by his naval officer father. It’s the end of World War II and Jack suddenly finds himself at the edge of the world in a strange new place, looking at something he’s never seen before—the ocean. The book opens with his reaction. “The first time you see the ocean is supposed to be either exhilarating or terrifying. I wish I could say it was one of those for me. I just threw up, right there on the rocky shore.” (This is the first book I’ve read that begins with vomit. Remember the Smuckers Jam slogan—With a name like Smuckers, it’s got to be good? Well, if a character vomits in the first few lines, I’ve got to keep reading!) When Jack looks up from being sick, he notices a boy up the shore putting sand into bags and building a wall. Jack doesn’t know it, but this is his first encounter with Early Auden, “the strangest of boys.” The oddly charismatic Early, who sees the digits in the number pi as colors, and reads their progression like a story about the character Pi, somehow pulls Jack into an Odyssey-like adventure into the woods of northern Maine. It’s a blend of realism and mystical realism, which is just what you want when two characters head off on their own in a small boat on a big river.

For more about Clare Vanderpool:


And here are a few more recommended titles for you to explore on your own:

9780375971426_p0_v2_s260x420Twerp. 2013. Mark Goldblatt. New York: Random House Books for Young Readers. 275 pages. Genre: YA realistic fiction Ages: Grades 6-8

9780385742443_p0_v3_s260x420Paperboy. 2013. Vince Vawter. New York: Delacorte Press. 224 pages.

Genre: YA realistic fiction Ages: Grades 6-8



9780763658106_p0_v1_s260x420After Eli. 2012. Rebecca Rupp. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 245 pages. Genre: YA realistic fiction Ages: Grades 6-8

Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Coming summer-soon (a bit more leisurely than school-year-soon): Vicki will review Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz and then continue the ongoing discussion of machine scoring, a frightening topic. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Don’t forget: We can customize a workshop, classroom demo, or other writing consultation to suit the needs of your classroom, school or district. So, for the BEST professional development blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

In Mr. L’s 5th Grade Classroom Part II

9780763646011_p0_v1_s114x166  IMG_0575

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

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

Welcome back for Part II, the follow-up to my April 25th post, In Mr. L’s Classroom Part I:  Paul Fleischman’s The Matchbox Diary!

I hope you were able to experience this book for yourself, as you were invited to do in Part I, “…either by purchasing it, borrowing, or flipping through it in a bookstore.” Just seeing the illustrations firsthand will make this a must have book. If you weren’t able to put your hands on a copy, you may want to revisit In Mr. L’s 5th Grade Classroom Part I for my summary of the book. Here’s one sentence from that post, an excerpt that captures the focus of my writing lesson with students.

“…This idea, that the things we hold on to are keepers of our life’s stories, is at the heart of this beautiful book, told solely through dialogue—the conversation of a young girl and her great-grandfather meeting for the first time.”

Though this book could be the springboard for all sorts of writing lessons focusing on any combination of the six traits, here’s what I chose to do with Mr. L’s wonderful fifth graders. Mr. L is a former student of my wife’s, in his fourth year of teaching but his first year teaching in an elementary school. All of this took place in Mr. L’s classroom during my visits, usually lasting an hour, over a three-week period. Some of the following steps were accomplished in one visit, while others needed more time. I tried to make my visits on consecutive days, but testing schedules, a teacher workday, and my own personal obligations sometimes got in the way. And just to make my experience as real as possible, Mr. L’s document camera was on the fritz, working one moment but not the next and forcing me to confront my technological dependency (I love document cameras) and adjust accordingly.

In the Classroom

1. Motivation/anticipatory setA Big Box and Lots of Small Boxes. This part of the lesson is not necessary, but as a guest teacher, I felt it was important to create some excitement about what we were about to do. Since I didn’t have 30+ empty matchboxes on hand, I went to a craft store and purchased enough small, lidded boxes so, when the time came, each student could have one, along with a few extras. I also found a larger box (a cigar box wasn’t big enough) that would hold all the small boxes. Inside the extra small boxes (See photo) I placed some personal objects that, like my magnifying glass, held stories from my recent past and younger days—my own matchbox diary. I carried the big box under my arm the day I came to class to share the book. Being as overtly secretive as possible, I enlisted two students to be the guardians of the box. “No shaking and no peeking,” I told them, adding, ”In fact, try not to even look at the box. No staring! Just hold it until I ask for it.”


2. Background. I decided not to overwhelm the students with historic information about immigration, Ellis Island, America in the early 1920’s, or Italy, the great-grandfather’s country of origin. We talked briefly about what it means to be an immigrant—to not know the language or culture, and, as I’m sure is true in many communities, Mr. L’s class had some students who were recent immigrants to the United States with very personal connections to the topic. We also talked about some of the reasons people have for leaving their homeland, sometimes in the face of danger, to live in a new country. (You might choose to connect this book to your history curriculum, if appropriate, and have students/whole class do some research prior to reading the book.) The concept of keeping a diary was something the students were very familiar with—one group (literature circle) of students was currently reading Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

3. Reading the book. As always, your own careful reading of this book (or any book you plan to use all or part of with students) prior to sharing it should be your first step. Discovering how you personally connect to the text and illustrations will help your students make important connections, as well. Gather your students closely, or use your document camera to allow for close up viewing of the beautifully detailed illustrations.

On the day I shared this book with Mr. L’s students, his document camera froze (wouldn’t you know it!), so I quickly gathered the 5th graders, some in chairs, some on the floor, squeezing them in for the best view possible. Fortunately, I had also brought with me my grandfather’s magnifying glass to show them how I first experienced the book and also because of its connection to my grandfather. Like the objects in the matchboxes, that magnifying glass was the keeper of stories about my granddad and my childhood. One of the students asked me about what my grandfather used the glass for. I shared a short remembrance of him using the glass as he worked on his stamp collection (which I also possess).

I read about half of the book, then paused to do a quick review—What object did the girl choose to have her great-grandfather tell her about? What was inside the cigar box? Why did great-grandfather keep his diary in matchboxes and not written in a book? What was in the first box she opened? What is the story of the olive pit?—before finishing the book.

It was at this point that I turned to my box guardians. They were very excited to help me open my box and find out what was inside. “It’s a box full of little boxes, just like in the book!” I handed out the small boxes containing the items I had brought from home to six of the students. They took turns opening their boxes, one at a time, showing the rest of the class what was inside—a leather bookmark embossed with the letter J, a silver dollar dated 1889, a couple of marbles, an arrowhead, a picture of a coyote, a lapel pin in the shape of dog’s head. And following the pattern of the book, they wanted to know the story of each item, which I told them in greatly abbreviated form, except for the story of the bookmark, which I told in greater detail—handmade for me by my friend Racquel Peacock (real name!), given to me on the day I moved away from Roseburg, Oregon when I was eight years old, passed to me through the car window right before we hit the road, etc. I then handed students, along with Mr. L, their own empty boxes, and had them return to their desks. Before ending my visit for the day, I had them put their names on the inside and gave them their mission to accomplish for my next visit—to bring a story, in the form of a memento (object, photo, drawing of an object, or even the name of an object written on a slip of paper to avoid the risk of losing something important) to put in their boxes, just like I had done. Mr. L had them keep their small boxes at school. As they brought their stories, they could place them in their small boxes, and then place those in the big box. A big box filled with little boxes, filled with stories.

4. Finding and sharing (telling) their stories. By the end of this lesson, each of the six traits will find its way into the spotlight for its starring moment, but that all-important, foundational trait of ideas never leaves the center of the stage. The Matchbox Diary focuses on the story ideas represented by each of the objects in the matchboxes. Each of the mementoes was chosen for what it held inside, and to properly relate each story to an audience, the teller has to focus on details, the just right details needed to give shape and depth to each tale. To help the students find their stories and discover the important details, I wanted them to pre-write by sharing the contents of their boxes and telling their stories aloud in small groups. Just like Broadway plays are often taken out of town to a smaller stage for rehearsals and test audiences, I wanted the students to rehearse their stories to make sure there truly was one and that it was worth telling. I modeled the process in front of the class with my own small audience—two student volunteers and me, making sure they each had a box, pencil, and a few small post-its. I started the sharing by opening my small box, revealing a paperclip, something I had just slipped off a pile of papers moments before.  Here’s the paperclip story I told them:

The object in box is my paperclip. I use paperclips all the time. They are really useful. I use this one to hold papers together.

One student couldn’t help himself, blurting out, “That’s it? That’s not a story!” And of course, he was right. So I asked my sharing group what more they wanted to know—perhaps if they asked me some questions, I might find the paperclip’s story. Where did you get it? What makes it special? How long have you had it? My answer to their questions was, sadly, the same—I don’t know! We decided that clearly, my paperclip didn’t have much of a story to go with it, so I reached for the leather bookmark I had shown them the day before. Holding it in my hands made it easier to share my memory. After retelling its story, it was clear that my bookmark mattered to me and was the gatekeeper to events and people from a significant moment in my life. I asked my group if there was anything else they wanted to know—did my story feel complete? I had them write their questions on post-its so that I wouldn’t forget them when it came time to write—as my audience, their input was important to me. They wanted to know more about Racquel—what she looked like and if she was my girlfriend, about where I lived and why I was moving, and what I was like when I was eight. I prefer student writers to ask questions of their fellow writers—unlike comments, questions call for answers. In turn, my group mates shared the contents of their boxes and their stories. Each of them came away with questions on post-its to help them when it came time to write. Mr. L helped the rest of the class divide into groups, distribute post-its, and the sharing groups got to work.

5. First Drafts: Getting it down on paper/skipping lines. The obvious next step was to begin writing. We spent a little time talking about beginnings, opening sentences, and enticing leads. As a group, we decided that everyone should avoid beginning their pieces with “The object in my box is a _________,” as I had done with my paperclip story. I was going to return to class in two days, and everyone committed to writing a first rough draft by then, and doing their best to remember to skip lines.

6. Sharing and revising—Details, details, details. On the day I returned, everyone (except for two absent students) had a rough draft. (Some, as it turns out, were pretty rough.) Before we dove into their writing, I wanted them to get focused on details, so we returned to The Matchbox Diary for some inspiration. In the book, one of the matchboxes the girl opens reveatling sunflower seed shells. I asked the students what they remembered about the story of these seed shells. And they remembered a lot—The great-grandfather used the shells to mark the number of days it took for their ship to cross the ocean from Italy to America—nineteen days at sea—placing one seed shell in the matchbox each morning, and finally one morning seeing the Statue of Liberty and arriving in New York. And on that day, he tasted his first banana, spitting it out because he didn’t know he had to peel it. We made the connection between what we remembered and the author’s specific choices of details to include. The writer zoomed in on the significant details, so that readers like us could see, feel, connect, and then remember what was important.

To help them see this in another way, I asked for their help with my own writing, a piece about an actual close encounter with a coyote. I had included a picture of a coyote (from an online search) in one of my small boxes but hadn’t told them much of the story. This draft was pretty rough, I told them, and I really needed their help. I handed each student a copy, a plastic sleeve (page protector), a dry erase pen, and a tissue for erasing. After sliding the drafts into their sleeves, and with pens stilled capped, I modeled how I found out my writing needed help—I had shared it with myself by reading it aloud and imagining that they were my audience. I read my piece aloud for them:

The Coyote Story

                  I was walking.  I was walking by myself.  It was morning.  It was foggy. I saw two coyotes.  I saw one in front of me.  I saw one behind me.  I was scared.  I looked for a stick.  I clapped my hands.  I stomped my feet.  I screamed at them.  I saw them run away.  I walked home fast!

 I paused and asked for their honest thoughts—I trusted them to tell me the truth. As my readers, what did they think? “You’ve got some problems!” You have too many I’s!” “Where were you?” “Your sentences are too short.” “You didn’t tell me what the coyotes looked like.” “You used the same words too many times.” “Where are the details?” And my favorite, “Speak your mind! We weren’t there with you!”  It was time to uncap their pens and help me with some specific revision advice. Fortunately, on this day, the ghost in Mr. L’s document camera was taking a break, which allowed students to show their sleeves, and all their suggestion, to the class. I kept track of the specifics on a piece of chart paper and thanked them for each suggestion. Almost every student recognized my lack of details and the repetitive structure and length of my sentences. (One of Mr. L’s literature circles was reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, so we talked about the value of short sentences in that context. The problem in my writing wasn’t short sentences—it was a lack of sentence variety.) They also offered advice on my title, lead sentence, and my ending—“Are you sure you didn’t run home as fast as you could?”

7. Sharing with self/second draft. Their next step was to share their draft with themselves, with the same honest eyes and ears they used with my writing. They were excited to use the pens and sleeves again, which helped. They spread out around the room, facing away from other students. Before beginning, I had them look at the chart where I had recorded their comments about my writing, focusing their attention on what they had noticed: lead sentence, description/detail, sentence variety, repetitive words, strong ending that wrapped up the story, etc. The purpose of this solo share was for student writers to see and hear their writing as a potential reader would. Because they had skipped lines, there was room for them to make additions, subtractions or even notes to themselves about possible changes. I always want students to practice owning their writing and process and being responsible for their first revisions. Following this round of sharing/revising, students committed to making a second rough draft as their next step.

8. Sharing second/revising. For this step, the students returned to their small sharing groups, armed with their drafts and post-its. This time I wanted writers to take turns sharing their work, and then receiving comments/questions verbally and on post-its. Each writer was to walk away with at least one note of praise (which we practiced)—a favorite word, sentence, detail, and one question that might lead to further revisions from each member of their group. Students were given writing time following their group work to act on their post-its, making any revisions while they were fresh in their minds.

9. Sharing and Editing: Conferences and two signatures. We were nearing the “end, ” so it was time to edit and clarify the difference between revising and editing. “Do we get to use the sleeves and pens?” Of course! I gave them a piece of my writing loaded with spelling mistakes, missing punctuation and capitalization, etc. I asked them—with pens tightly capped—what do notice first about my writing? “Lots of mistakes!” “Did you do all this on purpose?” “It’s hard to read!” I was thrilled to hear this last comment—it allowed us to talk about why we need to find and correct our mistakes. If readers can’t fight their way through all the errors, they’ll never find our stories, our big ideas, which was the reason we wrote in the first place. Working on their own first, I had them find as many of my mistakes as they could and correct them if they knew what to do. I then had them check with a partner to compare what they had found and work together on corrections. We then went through the piece as a class, talking about the most common kinds of errors, their own weak spots (paragraphing—many said they didn’t always know when to begin a new one), and about words that they used every day but were still trouble now and then—maybe, sincerely, their/there/they’re, because, too/two/to, and so on. We decided that fifth graders should be masters of capitalization and ending punctuation and to make it a goal to never have to edit for those two things again.

Their mission now was to edit their pieces three times—self/partner/partner. Writers needed to collect the signatures of their partners at the top of their writing in addition to their own signature, to prove they had all three layers of editing. We didn’t call the next draft “final,” but they all agreed to have a “clean copy” of their writing for our next session.

10. Clean Copies and Reflection. Since my time with Mr. L’s class was nearly over, I wanted them to reflect about all that they had done, starting with The Matchbox Diary and ending with their own writing. I wrote the word Reflect at the top of a fresh sheet of chart paper (this was a no document camera day) and asked what it meant to reflect—remember, think about, explain, flashback were their quick responses. (I rather like their ideas.) So we reflected about what we had been doing beginning with reading the book, their own small boxes, their stories, Racquel Peacock, the Coyote Story, plastic sleeves, revising, editing, and clean copies. Now, I had them reflect on a more personal level. I headed a new chart, I learned… and handed them each a 4×4-lined post-it. I asked each student to write one sentence to reflect on what they had learned about writing or themselves as writers, form their reflection into a sentence on their post-it, and stick it on the chart when they were ready. Here are some of their responses:

I learned…

…that when we are writing, we need to put our effort into it. I’ve also learned that I can express myself in my writing.

…in writing that everyone is not perfect, including me.

…that I really need to revise, edit, and read my writing to myself to feel it better.

…that using punctuation will make the writing easier to read.

…that writing is fun when you write about something you like.

…that writing can be fun, and that I write better when someone is helping me.

…that when you’re writing a serious paper and then you put a funny or sarcastic sentence in it, it sounds really stupid when you read it out loud.

…that if you don’t like writing, and you start writing, you will start enjoying it.

…that the first time you check your writing, it’s not all correct and perfect.

…that when you write to have someone read it to you so you can hear your mistakes.

…that when I’m told to write descriptively and I do, people feel like they are there and they feel emotions that I wouldn’t even feel.

…that I write a lot like Gary Paulsen.

…that if you revise your paper you get better at writing.

…that you need just enough details, not too many and not too little.

…that no one is a dictionary (as in no one knows how to spell every word.)

…that editing is different from revising.

…that I like to start a story by setting the scene.

…that when I get a partner who has neutral feelings about me, I can revise and edit better.

…that a diary doesn’t have to be written in a book, and that big stories can be hidden inside small things.


11. Conferences—Mining for gold nuggets. My last step with Mr. L’s students was to conference with each of them individually—I wanted to have each student share his or her writing (clean copy and drafts), allowing me an opportunity to give feedback one on one. I know that conferencing like this is a luxury/dream/near impossibility for many teachers. Large class sizes, time issues, lack of confidence in their own writing skills, classroom management—what are the other students doing while I’m conferencing? These are real concerns for teachers, so I won’t pretend they aren’t. Mr. L uses a modified Daily Five (Boushey and Moser) approach, which helps address a couple of the concerns. And with two of us in the room, it was significantly easier to meet with individual students. All I can say is that individual conferences work as both a formative and summative assessment tool—discovering and reinforcing a student’s strengths, help in determining instructional needs, and can be a lot of fun. With Mr. L’s students, I wanted to be able to point out and praise specific a moment of two in their writing. I was looking for strong words, interesting sentences, sharp details, intriguing leads/conclusions, fluent sentences, etc. It wasn’t hard to find golden moments in each of their writings. Because I had gotten to know these students, some of these highlights shine even brighter to me–I had seen the before and the after. Here are the gold nuggets I mined from these conferences:

Student K: I was only five when my mom gave me a bracelet that was passed down from generation to generation from my mom’s mom to my mom, then to me.

Student J: Before we got to State, I injured my knee—I had bone growing over bone. The doctor said that I could not play baseball for the rest of the season.

Student L:  First, a boy next door to my friend threw a rock straight at me. Do not ask me why, but it hit me in the head. Then I started running home, but I tripped over a stick and could not get up.

Student J: One day while working in the war torn town of Bremerhaven, Germany, he met a beautiful young German woman named Ursula. It wasn’t long until they were in love and wanted to marry, but that wasn’t so easy when you are a spy in enemy territory.

Student S: Then he opened his hand, and it was something, all right! It was shiny. It looked like diamonds, and all you could see was a rock crystal thing. It was impressive, because I had never seen anything like it before.

Student D: I knew it was an arrowhead, because it was pointy and it had chipped edges. It was really very easy to break, so I held it carefully.

Student K: That tooth reminds me of the first day I got Spike. I got him at Home Depot. We bought him from two guys who were selling puppies.

Student S: Tiny waterfalls poured out from the roof of my tan house. As I sat in my colorful room, finishing the only book I haven’t read, a large raindrop splattered on my window.

Student J:  I first saw these birds at an exotic pet fair. As soon as I laid my eyes on them, I knew I had to have one. I begged to get them for year, and on Christmas Eve I opened one present, and it was a birdcage! I screamed so loud I swear you could have heard me from space!

Student S: This would not be the last time I would ever see my grandpa, but I was going to school for the first time and wouldn’t have all the time on my hands like I used to as a little kid.

Student E: I paused. 3…2…1… Blink! It was done. Then she had to do the other ear. She had me count down again. 3…2…1… Blink! There were two, shiny purple earrings in my ears. It did not even hurt me.

Student O: There was just one thing we needed to find, the perfect sand dollar. It had to be full, no holes or big cracks. We all set off in different directions, and it was broken sand dollar after broken sand dollar!

Student A: “Daughter.” That is what my necklace says. “Mother.” That is what my mom’s necklace says.

Student S: When we got home, I asked my dad how she died. He said she was allergic to bees. My theory is that when we were playing, Lady got stung.

Student W: I knew for sure this place was old because you could see a cracked oak chair and out of date newspapers. And when I say old, I’m not kidding. Some of this stuff should be in the Smithsonian.

Student A: Are you wondering how many cranes we made as a team? Well, we made 2,000 cranes out of paper! The Japanese could make 2 wishes!

Student E: One day I was walking by my house when I noticed that a dog was behind me. The dog was black with a black nose and a pink, wet, slobbery tongue.

Student G: After going on the trip, my great-grandma Martha wanted to give me a beautiful necklace. It used to be hers when she was about sixty years old. Now she is eighty-five.

Student M: One day, in a two year old’s boring life, an artist, also know as me, came walking into the kitchen where I saw my brother buckled into his highchair. The minute I saw the colorful markers, I had the best idea a two year old could ever think of.

Student J: On the shore, there were all sorts of rocks, but there were lots of awesome rocks. For me, awesome rocks are the kind you can see clear through.

Student R: Another thing I noticed was how a trailer could express one’s personality. If you see a trailer with peace signs and flowers on it, you are probably going to think of a hippie. If you see a trailer with skulls on it, you are going to think of someone scary.

Student R: I put my shells away in a box that my grandma gave to me. The box is six inches long and four inches wide. I have between 100 and 200 shells. My friends have said, “Wow! That’s a lot of shells!”

Student A: On the way to school I asked my friend when he was going to Hawaii and if he could get me a souvenir. Surprisingly, he said, “Sure!” Right then, I knew it was a lie because of his smiling face.

Thanks again to Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline for their amazing book, The Matchbox Diary. And of course, extra-special thanks goes to Mr. L and each one of his fifth graders writers. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to be called Mr. Hicks, each day I walked into your room.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will be reviewing Amy Krause Rosenthal’s exciting new book, Exclamation Mark, about how a familiar punctuation mark discovers his purpose. Thanks for visiting. Come often, share your thoughts—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


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

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

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

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

In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A recent post focused on connecting the trait of Ideas with the Common Core. This time around, we’ll look at Organization: ordering ideas to make them both clear and interesting. We’ll define the trait, link it to the CCSS for writing, and suggest favorite books to use as mentor texts in teaching important elements of Organization—including leads, endings, and transitions. As always, we encourage you to explore the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own; check out www.commoncore.org


One of my favorite quotations about writing comes from Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Indeed, writing needs internal structure to hold ideas together. Picture your living room. Imagine that “living room” is your big idea, and everything in it, fireplace to windows, beams to floors, rugs to lamps, is a detail. What you did with those details—how you arranged them, the overall impression you created, where you directed a visitor’s eye—that’s your organization. Organizational structure, whether for a room or a piece of writing, varies with purpose…

In narrative, good organization helps readers follow the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean things are told in the precise order in which they happened, however; good narrative often includes flashbacks or previews, or skips back and forth across time. The plot may bounce from one character’s perspective to that of another, as in Bull Run by Paul Fleischman. One way to assess effective organization in narrative is through our own sense of anticipation: Are we just dying to know what happens next? Matilda, in Roald Dahl’s book by the same name, grows very weary of having her parents tell her she is ignorant, when she is anything but—and vows revenge. The second chapter ends this way: “You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list” (Roald Dahl, Matilda. 1988. Puffin Books, p. 29). Just what does Matilda have planned for her overbearing, judgmental father? We can’t wait to find out—and that lures us right into chapter 3.

In informational writing, organization is designed to maximize learning by effectively ordering the myriad of details that emerge from thorough research on a focused topic. Imagine you were going to write a report on cockroaches. What subtopics might you cover—and how would you arrange them? Visualize a pyramid: main topic at the apex, major subtopics midway down (clusters of chapters), smaller subtopics at the base (individual chapters). To see an example of this organizational design, check out the table of contents for The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (1996 Ten Speed Press). You’ll find eleven subtopics (chapters) arranged under three major sections: Cockroach Basics (anatomy and history); Sex, Food, and Death (how they’re born, where they live, and what can kill them: cannibalism, wasps, millipedes—and the occasional lucky human); and When Humans and Cockroaches Meet (how cockroaches affect civilization, our efforts to control them—plus a fascinating chapter on cockroach pets). This informational pyramid makes it simple for us, as readers, to find what we’re looking for: e.g., How long can a beheaded cockroach survive? Good informational writers turn chaos (random piles of details) into purposeful design—and that takes skill. As Gordon explains, “This book contains the collected wisdom of several hundred individuals—entomologists, pest control specialists, psychologists, filmmakers, novelists, historians, fine and folk artists, and a few of my close friends” (vii). (Sidebar: Gordon’s book is also an exemplar of GREAT informational voice, and is jam packed with some of the best leads and conclusions you’ll find anywhere. One of my favorites (from “Gastronomy,” p. 97): “What do cockroaches eat? Well, what’ve you got?”)

Organization is vital to the success of an argument. Readers want to know straight off what the writer’s position is (so this often pops up right in the opening paragraph), and immediately after that, they want substantive evidence to back up the writer’s claim. At that point—and this is one important way in which argument differs from other forms of informational writing—they also want objections addressed. What does the opposition have to say, and what makes the writer’s argument stronger than theirs? Good arguments usually close with the very most compelling evidence the writer can muster, and/or recommendations for action, or revised thinking about the issue at hand. Consider these lines from the closing chapter of Our Planet (MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte, 2008, p. 141): “It sometimes gets lost in the talk about the number of wildlife facing extinction, trees being clear-cut, and ice caps melting, but there is a very real human face to global warming. We see it every time someone with asthma struggles to get a deep breath. We see it in those places where food or water is scarce and people are starving. We can even see it where people are fleeing from war.”

Following are the key elements of Organization:

  • A strong lead
  • An easy-to-follow flow of ideas
  • Clear transitions
  • Effective pacing
  • A satisfying ending

All five elements are embedded in the Common Core.


Organizational Words & Phrases within the Common Core

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core are directly connected to the trait of Organization. Look in particular for the following—

introduce a topic or text; organizational structure; ideas are logically grouped; logically ordered; supported; link ideas; related; concluding statement; group information logically; headings; concluding statement; clarify relationships; appropriate transitions; transition words, phrases, and clauses; cohesion; previewing; unfolds naturally and logically; sequence; pacing; orient the reader; smooth progression of events

Here are two specific examples from the Common Core (grade 5 and grades 11-12) that show this language in context. Please note that we are condensing and paraphrasing here; we ask that you refer to  www.commoncore.org for precise wording.


In grade 5, students are developing their organizational skills . . .

W.5.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped
  • Link opinion and reasons
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic clearly
  • Group information logically
  • Link ideas using transition words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in addition, despite all this, to illustrate)
  • Provide a concluding statement

W.5.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Orient the reader
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally
  • Manage the sequence of events through varied transitional words, phrases, and clauses
  • Provide a conclusion that follows logically from those events

By grades 11-12, those skills have become more sophisticated . . .

W.11-12.1 (argument) requires students to—

  • Introduce the claim or claims
  • Create an organization that logically sequences claims, counter claims, and evidence
  • Use transitions to link ideas as well as major sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that supports the primary argument

W.11-12.2 (informational writing) requires students to—

  • Introduce a topic
  • Make sure each new element builds on what came before
  • Create a unified whole
  • Use appropriate transitions to link ideas and sections of the text
  • Create cohesion
  • Provide a conclusion that suggests the implications or significance of the topic

W.11-12.3 (narrative) requires students to—

  • Engage and orient the reader by setting up a problem or situation
  • Introduce the narrator or characters
  • Create a smooth flow of events, using strategies suchas pacing
  • Sequence events in a way that creates coherence
  • Sequence events so they build toward a particular outcome
  • Provide a conclusion that follows from the story and offers resolution

Check out parallel writing standards (1 through 3) for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above to see how close the link to the trait of Organization really is.

Teaching to These Standards

Now for the instructional side! If you were going to put this complex trait in a nutshell, these are the things you’d want to teach—

  • Great leads that set up whatever follows (argument, discussion, story)
  • Strong transitions that tie ideas or sections of text together
  • Structure—ways of presenting information, whether that means comparison and contrast, main point and detail or support, step by step, chronological order, point and counterpoint, or something else
  • Pacing—spending time where it counts by lingering over parts that require attention, and gliding quickly through (or over) anything obvious or less relevant
  • Effective endings that wrap up a discussion or story, and leave a reader feeling satisfied

Following are some of our favorite books for teaching these important organizational elements.


GREAT BOOKS for Teaching Organization
as Presented in the Common Core


3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .

1. Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam. 2001. Little, Brown and Company. Informational. Elementary and up.

This book has traveled the country with me. I use it to teach detail, voice in informational writing, effective use of terminology, and exceptional formatting (the illustrations by Alan Male are excellent). It’s also a great book for opening discussions on organizing informational details because its structure is so easy to follow, even for young writers. Don’t hesitate to use it with middle or high school students, though; it’s entertaining enough for adult fans of spiders.

As the Common Core standards suggest, good informational writing begins by setting the stage for the discussion to follow. This means, usually, starting with a broad overview to introduce the topic, then zeroing in on specifics. You couldn’t have a better book for illustrating this approach. Notice the content of the first chapter: “A Dozen Spiders Plus One That’s Not.” It opens with one of my all-time favorite leads: “People who create computer Web sites to attract attention are borrowing an idea millions of years old. Even before there were dinosaurs, spiders were luring insects to their web sites” (p. 4).  Facklam goes on to tell us a little about spiders in general—“No matter where you are, there is a spider not far away” (p. 4)—and to share a number of intriguing details, including how many insects they eat, just how many spiders inhabit the world (you’ll be surprised), and the many ways they use their remarkable silk. What she does not do is tediously summarize details about the dozen spiders to which she’s about to introduce us. She meticulously avoids retracing steps—saving each detail for just the right spot. That’s good organization.

The second chapter (we’re still setting the stage here), “Spider Parts,” focuses on the anatomy of the spider, introducing us to technical terms, like Arthropoda, exoskeleton, cephalothorax, chelicerae, pedipalps, and spinnerets. Now we know enough about spiders as a whole to move in for close-ups of twelve species—plus the one that’s not (you may not guess what that is without reading the book). For beginning writers, that may be enough to share: introductory chapters followed by one detailed chapter for each species. Clean, straightforward organizational structure. With older writers, though, look deeper . . .

Notice that each species-specific chapter opens with one or more fascinating details about that particular spider—then goes on to share related knowledge about spiders in general. Chapters are short and content-rich, so the pacing is outstanding. For example, we learn in chapter 3, that the Garden Spider (pp. 6-7) attaches a ribbon to its web, presumably to ward off small birds that might otherwise become entangled. But we also learn how spiders build webs, why they don’t get stuck in them, and (most fascinating of all) how spiders in space become temporarily disoriented, and until they can re-orient themselves, spin webs that are a tangled mess. Who knew? (Teaching tip: When you share a multi-chapter book, check out leads and conclusions from each chapter, not just those that open and close the book as a whole. Notice how often you find the very best details within these opening and closing lines.)

2. Guys Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka. 2005. Viking. Memoirs by famous writers. Grades 5 through high school.

What a superb collection of mini (one- to two-page) life stories. This lively, sometimes zany, anthology offers a wondrous opportunity for students to get to know some favorite authors (Avi, Ted Arnold, Edward Bloor, Bruce Brooks, Chris Crutcher, Jack Gantos, Will Hobbs, Brian Jacques, Stephen King, Walter Dean Myers, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck, Jerry Spinelli, Laurence Yep, and many others) a little better.

The book is filled with voice, and is great fun to read silently or aloud. Some essays are wildly comic, others more poignant. Their brevity and no-holds-barred content (many are clearly aimed dead center at a middle school audience) will pull in many a reluctant reader. Boys in particular love this book. One thing these essays have in common: great leads and endings.

You can use the book to illustrate the power of both because it’s easy to read six or seven leads—or endings—in just a few minutes. Here’s a tip you won’t find in the Common Core: When the ending echoes the lead, it’s an almost sure sign that what falls in the middle has coherence. Check out this example from the essay by Bruce Brooks called “E, A Minor, B7.” It opens this way: “There was only one thing you did in eighth grade, and I did it. I played in a band” (p. 42). I love that lead. It has focus but also a bit of comical anti-climax (Band? Seriously? That’s what you were leading up to??). Brooks hearkens back to this endearing, self-deprecating moment with the “now-we’re-more-worldly” tone of his ending: “We were right: at the start of school the next September, these guys were still together . . . But now they were losers. Bands were eighth grade. Nobody played in a band in ninth grade. Ninth grade, it turned out, was about girls” (p. 44). Well, that’s more like it. That’s also brilliant. A good ending does follow logically from what’s gone before, as the Common Core requires—but a brilliant ending points to the future, and makes you want to read on. (Teaching tip: Have students identify leads or conclusions from their own reading that they find especially effective. Which leads would encourage them to read on? Which endings are satisfying, like a good dessert—and which leave them unfulfilled? Create a class collection and talk about which leads/endings speak to you. By the way, my all-time favorite ending is from Charlotte’s Web; if you haven’t read it in a while, have a look.)

3. Years of Dust by Albert Marrin. 2009. Penguin. History/Informational Writing. Grades 6 and up. Appropriate for adults.

Award winning author Albert Marrin has a talent for making nonfiction ring with voice, and for sifting through oceans of meticulously researched details to identify what is most important. This book is also brilliantly organized—more on that in a moment.

Notice the formatting straightaway. This is the story of the Dust Bowl, told through text, mind bending photos, newspaper clippings, journal entries from those who lived it—even song lyrics from people like Woody Guthrie. After appreciating the sheer beauty and scope of the book (you will want a document projector to share the stunning, often shocking, photos), take time to talk about how this author took literally thousands of details and worked them into a coherent whole. Discuss the challenge involved, and strategies Marrin used.

In his riveting introduction, he gives us a hint about his master plan: “This book aims to tell the story of the Dust Bowl disaster. It is really two stories. The first focuses on ecology—the natural world of the Great Plains. The second story is about how people invited disaster by changing the ecology of the Great Plains: “assaulting” might be a better word” (p. 4). Two stories = two main parts to the writing. Therein lies a great lesson in how to deal with an overwhelming number of details: Step back and get the big picture first. Ask yourself how many subtopics or chapters your BIG topic spans. Begin there, remembering that you will need to leave some things out.

Study the Table of Contents and you’ll see a definite, purposeful progression. Marrin begins with a shocking look at just how severe the Dust Bowl was—total “Darkness at Noon.” This whole chapter is his “lead,” and it is gripping. He means to startle us, and he does. Then, he shifts back in time a bit, giving us a picture of life on the prairie before dust storms erased nearly everything in their path—through chapters titled “The Great Plains World” and “Conquering the Great Plains.” We learn more about the ecology of the plains—and just who those “conquerors” really were. (Authors’ note: We usually think of leads as an opening line or two, but a lead can run a whole paragraph, page—or chapter.)

At this point, the book switches directions: Early ranchers, cowboys, and unscrupulous buffalo hunters were followed by farmers (“The Coming of the Farmers”), a group with a strong work ethic and close family ties. Unfortunately, their farming practices—replacing the native grasses that had held the land together for centuries with cash crops like wheat and corn—aggravated the worst drought in our nation’s history, and created, in part, conditions that led to the Dust Bowl. The illustrations accompanying this section of the book will have you gasping for air yourself. The graphic, heart-wrenching tale of these farm families culminates with the chapter titled “Refugees in Their Own Land.” Marrin’s conclusion has two parts: “The New Deal,” a summary of how America dealt with this crisis; and “Future Dust Bowls,” chilling projections about the very great likelihood that similar catastrophes could occur, not only here but elsewhere in the world. It takes an extraordinary writer to put this much information into a design we can follow with ease. If I could award a prize just for organizational know-how, I’d give it to Albert Marrin.

I chose to include this book not only because of its masterful overall design, however, but also because it’s one of the best books ever for illustrating the power of transitions. Thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all beautifully connected. Here’s one short passage (from page 16) in which I’ve underlined the transitions to help you see what I mean (Read this passage aloud without the transitions to hear the difference):

Wherever a grasshopper cloud set down, it cleared the ground of plant life. All you could hear was the sound of countless jaws CHOMP, CHOMP, CHOMPING until nothing remained to eat. Young children, caught outdoors, screamed in terror as the insects’ claws caught in their hair and bodies wriggled into their clothing. On railroad slippery with crushed grasshoppers, trains could not start, or, worse, stop. Yet, since grasshopper jaws could not get at their roots, the native prairie grasses always grew back.     

 Years of Dust is among the best books of our time—an ingenious blend of genres, written from a strong research base and told with unforgettable voice. If you’re looking for that “just right” note for informational writing, here it is. (Teaching tip: Informational writing is designed to answer readers’ questions. We can use this bit of insight in planning. As students are preparing to write an informational piece, suggest that they list 3 to 5 questions a curious reader might have about their topic. Each question can become the focus of a paragraph, section, or chapter—depending on the length of the document. This is an easy but extremely effective way of getting large numbers of informational details in order.)


4 of Jeff’s Favorites . . . 

1. The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller. 2002. Henry Holt and Company. Informational. Grade 1 and up.

As Vicki said about one of her recommendations, this book, The Scrambled States of America, has traveled the country with me. I use it with younger students to teach detail, voice, and most importantly, organization. Yes, it’s a wonderful introduction to some basic United States geography, but at it’s core, the story being told is about finding the best, most logical way to fit each of the fifty states together into one whole country. Kansas is feeling a bit isolated and complains to his good friend Nebraska, “I just feel bored…We never DO anything, and we NEVER meet and NEW states!” They decide to throw a party and invite all the states to come. (Be sure to look closely at the detailed artwork, also by Lauire Keller to see what each state brings to the party, and to “hear” their chitchat—very funny.) Idaho and Virginia suggest that the states switch places so they could see a new part of the country, and this is when the scrambling begins. There’s great picture of the states all crammed into their new arrangement—Minnesota switching with Florida, North Dakota sliding into Texas’s spot, Arizona moving to the east coast, and so on. But of course, this organizational system doesn’t work—Minnesota didn’t bring sunscreen and Florida was freezing up north, and poor Kansas, who had switched with Hawaii, was now stuck by his lonesome in the middle of the Pacific without any neighbors at all. To solve all the problems, they decide to pack up and move back to where they belonged.

Logic, order, and chunking of like-information are the building block components of writing for our youngest writers. Books like this are a motivating way to teach students to think organizationally by helping them learn to ask themselves questions—What should I say first? Does this sentence connect to the one that comes before it? Does everything fit together, including my pictures? Young writers may begin to think of their writing like a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces—sentences, details, ideas—naturally, logically, and comfortably fit together.

(Note: The Scrambled States of America may also be purchased in a set with a matching jigsaw puzzle or as a board game, with more of an emphasis on each state’s geography. Very fun!)

2. The Vermeer Diaries: Conversations with Seven Works of Art by Bob Raczka. 2001. Millbrook Press. Informational/Historical Fiction. Elementary and up.

I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity to rave about any of Bob Raczka’s books. Though each of his books has a focus on art, they bring readers into the world of art he so obviously loves by very different paths. That’s right, his books are not all organized the same way. Here’s Looking at Me: How artists See Themselves, focuses on self-portraits and is a series of short essays about different artists. No One Saw: Ordinary things Through the Eyes of an Artist, uses rhyming text to emphasize how each of the featured artists viewed the world. And, Unlikely Pairs: Fun With Famous Works of Art, is a wordless book, juxtaposing two works of art on opposite pages to suggest a startling/humorous/revealing relationship between the pair. (These are just a few of his books.)

The Vermeer Diaries follows its own organizational design, as well. This book is a series of interviews/conversations, not with artist Jan Vermeer but with the subjects of seven of his paintings answering question from the author, Bob Raczka. In his introduction, the author tells readers, “Most of what we know about Vermeer, we have learned by studying his paintings…I wanted to know more about them. So I decided to interview a few of my favorites.” (p. 3) Here’s a little of the back and forth from Bob’s conversation with the milkmaid from Vermeer’s painting, The Milkmaid.

BOB: Do you have a favorite detail in this painting?

MAID: Well, since you ask, I do love the broken windowpane.

BOB: Wow. I’ve seen this painting dozens of times and never noticed that before.

MAID: That’s what I love about it—the fact that most people don’t see it. It’s one of those little things that makes me feel at home. (p. 7)

Each conversation begins with a large sized reproduction of the painting in question, and sprinkled around the pages are smaller photos of maps, tools, etc. pertinent to the conversation. This book, like each of his books, is a worthy example of a creatively designed structure, tailor made to the author’s purpose—he wanted to know more about the artist by getting the subjects to talk. A conversation, in the form of an interview is the perfect structure to deliver information to readers and allow the author to keep the pacing lively. Readers, imagining the subjects speaking with them, stay interested and focused on the secrets being spilled. Imagine your students choosing this structure to demonstrate learning, as an alternative to a traditional report format.

3. New Found Land by Allan Wolf. 2004. Candlewick. Historical Fiction. Grades 4 and up.

Think about the last time you finished reading a book you just loved and had to tell someone about it. “You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o ____________!” Of all the words you might have used to complete this glowing recommendation, organized is probably not one of them. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized! Though it may be true, the comment has an odd ring to it. Does this mean that as readers we take strong organization for granted? Perhaps. Or maybe it just means that we understand that when a piece of writing is well organized (refer back to the bulleted list of key elements of Organization above), readers are able to focus on what is most important, the writer’s ideas. Organization’s role is to create structure yet stay behind the scenes and help make sure the spotlight stays shining brightly on the author’s story or information, the real star of the show. When a writer creates an organizational structure that is too clunky and obvious about being organized, the focus strays, leading readers away from the big ideas and details—

I am writing a report about Lewis and Clark. In my report I will tell you four things about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about is some background information about Lewis and Clark. The second thing I will tell you about is who else went with them. The third thing I will tell you about is the kind of danger they faced. The fourth thing I will tell you about is what they discovered.

In my first paragraph, I will tell you some background information about Lewis and Clark. The first thing I will tell you about Lewis is that his first name was Meriwether. The first thing I will tell you about Clark is that his first name was William… 

As a reader, I call this “bumping into the beams.” The writer is so self-aware of the structure being built, that readers become hyper-aware and are forced to slam into the beams at every turn—Oh! I’m reading a reportLet me guess—right after your second thing…Yes! There it is! The third thing! Now, I’m going to go out on a ledge and go all-in that just around the corner is the fourth thing…Bingo! (We can even predict the ending—I hope you have enjoyed my report on Lewis and Clark…Bump! Slam! Ouch!) When this happens to readers, the spotlight is not on the writer’s big idea—the story and characters, or the thesis and support—but on the organizational structure. In a well-organized piece of writing, the structure goes undercover, guiding readers gently, not pulling them by their noses.

Allan Wolf’s book, New Found Land, is a great example of historical fiction brought to life through a thoughtful, purposeful organizational design that gently and creatively guides readers along the amazing journey of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. The guiding begins with the table of contents, which clearly lays out the book’s path—six parts broken down into a logical progression of chronology and westward geographical progress. Readers are also given a preview of the extensive Notes section (which includes significant background information, glossary, further reading suggestions, and historical references), an important (yet subtle) signal to the historical foundations of this fictional story. Like a play, the book begins with a cast list of all the key players whose voices we will hear—Sacagawea, Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, York, Oolum, the alter-ego of Lewis’s Newfoundland dog, etc. And then, like a good history, readers come across a map, one of several placed throughout the book to both locate and keep us on the trail of the story. And with the turn of the page, the real surprise is revealed, the writer’s design for telling his story. The author is going to let the characters tell their stories and reveal their perspectives in moments—poetic monologues, dialogues, letters, and reflections that are connected but not directly linked like a story told in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters would be. (Think Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, or Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.) Readers move down the trail of the big story—the overall expedition—transitioning between the moments of each character’s individual story as easily as turning your head to face the next speaker during a dinner table discussion with family members.

This book is filled with all the information of a research paper, yet its organizational design delivers it to us in a more personal, memorable way, and the spotlight remains fixed on the story, characters, and events—the stars of the show. Use this book in your classroom though, to give a standing ovation curtain call to the crew who put the show together—all the elements of Organization. You’ve just got to read this book. It’s s-o-o-o organized!

4. Animals in Motion: How Animals Swim, Jump, Slither, and Glide (and other titles in the Animal Behavior series: Animals Hibernating, Animal Senses, Animals and Their Young, Animals Eating, Animals and Their Mates, Animals at Work, Animal Talk, etc.) by Pamela Hickman or Etta Kaner. 2000 et al. Kids Can Press. Informational. Elementary and up.

Many of our younger students are information hounds, sniffing out books to feed their need to know more about their favorite animals, dinosaurs, cars, or periods in history. Whether they are reading every word or browsing, these students are soaking up the facts, statistics, diagrams and photos filling the pages. Now, as we ask students to do more and more informational writing, beginning in early grades, I’m always on the lookout for books to help students make the jump from consumers of information (readers) to producers of information (writers). Animals in Motion: How Animals swim, Jump, Slither and Glide (as one example of the great books in this series) is a perfect resource to help young writers do just that—become writers of informational text. Even the full title of the book serves as an example of how to break down and organize a broader topic into significant subtopics. Readers will see in the Table of Contents that the book is broken down into sections telling more about different types of animal locomotion: Swimmers and floaters, Fliers and gliders, Runners and walkers, Hoppers and jumpers, Slippers and sliders, and Climbers and swingers. In each section, readers are encouraged to find points of comparison between the ways various animals move and the ways they move through their world. The Swimmers and floaters chapter, for example, begins with a focus on beavers. Following an introduction, readers are asked to imagine themselves as a beaver:

If you were a beaver…

  • you would have webbed hind feet to help you swim.
  • your broad, flat tail would help you steer through the water.
  • you could close tiny flaps in your nose and ears when you dive so that water couldn’t get in.
  • you would have a set of see-through eyelids, like goggles, that close over your eyes to protect them while you are underwater.
  • you would spread special oil from your body over your fur to make it waterproof. (p. 7)

This serves as a great model for students to use in their own writing—helping readers make connections to the information you, as the writer, choose to include. It shows student writers the value (and option) of serving readers information in bulleted lists, which in this case, is also an effective format choice to engage them in your point of focus. Each chapter includes an introduction, a section like the one above, detailed drawings, and frequently, an experiment they could do at home (or in the classroom) for even greater understanding and insight. These also serve as great examples for students of another organizational structure, step-by-step/how-to/directions. Flipping through the pages of these books will remind both you and your students that engaging informational writing is not about following one, rigid structure, but is often accomplished by a blend of structures and format choices.

Authors’ Note: Remember that there are countless ways of organizing information (even though we usually limit ourselves to teaching just a few of them—chronological order, step by step, comparison-contrast, and so on). So in teaching this complex trait, share as many writing samples as you can, always asking your students, “How did the writer organize this? What strategies did he/she use to make this easy to follow?” And don’t be surprised to find several (or more) organizational designs all used within the same document!

Coming up on Gurus . . .

In an upcoming post, we’ll share ways to link the CCSS with the traits of VOICE and WORD CHOICE. We’ll be including favorite books for one or both traits. Also look for a preview of Vicki’s soon-to-be-released sixth edition of Creating Writers, which now features sections on the Common Core. Thanks again for making time to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Linking the CCSS for Writing with the Trait of IDEAS



How close is the connection between the Common Core State Standards for Writing and the Six Traits of Writing? Somewhat close? Pretty close? Try VERY. In fact, virtually every standard references one trait or another. That’s because the traits are simply qualities that make writing work, and making writing work is the primary focus of both the traits and the CC writing standards.

Two traits, Ideas and Organization, stand out particularly strongly within the first three writing standards (those dealing with genre).However, Voice plays an important role in grades 6 through 12, under the guise of “formal style and objective tone” as well as writing effectively to connect with an audience. And Word Choice is repeatedly cited under “precise language” and “domain specific vocabulary.” As you might expect, Word Choice also receives much attention within the Language Standards—along with Conventions and Sentence Fluency.

Over the next several posts, we’ll help you understand these important connections, focusing on the first four traits (Ideas, Organization, Voice, and Word Choice), and sharing some of our favorite literature for teaching traits AND standards-based skills. Here’s something to feel confident about: If you teach the six traits, you ARE teaching standards-based skills, without doubt. (See for yourself by exploring the Common Core Standards for Writing on your own, at www.commoncore.org)

In this post, we’ll focus on the trait of IDEAS, and see just how closely this trait is embedded within the Common Core. Let’s start with a definition . . .


IDEAS: What’s this trait about?

Ideas are everything you think, imagine, remember, know inside and out, and share with readers. Think of the trait of ideas as your reason for writing.  In narrative writing, ideas take the form of a story. In informational writing, your information IS your idea. In argument, ideas comprise your position and all the evidence you can summon to support it—or refute the other guy’s claim. Following are the key elements of this trait:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy or authenticity
  • Strong main idea, position, or storyline
  • Details, details, details
  • Expansion and development

Sound familiar? Of course. You’ll find this language everywhere throughout the Common Core.


QUICK PAUSE for . . . A Close-Up Look at Details

Before going further, let’s explore the concept of detail. Oh, that’s an easy concept, you’re thinking. Actually, for many students, it isn’t. In their writer’s brains, they see the complete picture of their story, information, or argument clearly. They struggle as writers because they don’t have the foggiest idea what we mean by the word “detail”—and consequently, they don’t understand what we mean when we ask them to explain, provide evidence, support their position, expand an idea, “be specific,” or “tell us more.” What on earth are we talking about?? What more could we want to know?? Well . . . we’re talking about details . . . which could take the form of—

  • Sensory details: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings
  • Quotations: what someone else had to say about a topic
  • Observations: firsthand information from the writer’s own experience
  • Facts: names, dates, measurements, data, findings, and other specifics
  • Images: clear descriptive pictures (of a person, a scene, an event) that help readers “see” what a writer is talking about
  • Definitions: explanations of difficult terms or concepts a reader might not know
  • Examples: specifics that support a generality—e.g., kinds of prey animals, people who hold world records, top 10 French foods, qualities of Olympic champions

Detail is the difference between this—

The fireman liked looking at fire.

—and this—

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor, playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 50th Anniversary edition, 1981, p. 3).

If you’re familiar with the CCSS, you already know that details of various kinds are emphasized across all genres. So teaching students ways of creating detail within their writing gives them an important leg up on (1) developing a topic (as the CCSS require), and (2) holding a reader’s interest—something essential to writing success in and beyond school.

Structure of the Traits—versus Structure of the Standards

Here’s an easy way to think about how traits and standards are linked . . .

The Six Trait Model is organized across writing concepts or qualities: ideas, organization, voice, and so on. The CCSS model is organized across three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. The traits are embedded within and are an integral part of each of these genres. Or, to put it another way: Traits are the qualities that make writing strong within any genre.

Words to Look For

Certain words or phrases within the Common Core link directly to the trait of Ideas. You’ll know you’re talking about this foundational trait when you come across any of the following:

argument, accuracy, topic, claim, evidence, opinion, information, events, details, information, reasons, focus, definitions, develop or development, descriptions, knowledge, concrete details, quotations, examples, sensory details, story, point, clarity, clarify, clear writing, coherent writing, summarize or paraphrase information, gather information from credible sources, demonstrate understanding, logical reasoning, valid reasoning

For example,

In kindergarten . . .

W.K.1 (argument) requires students to tell about a topic and state an opinion about that topic.

W.K.2 (informational writing) requires students to name a topic and share information about that topic, through drawing, writing, or dictation.

W.K.3 (narrative) requires students to narrate an event or series of events.

By grade 8 . . .

W.8.1 (argument) requires students to write an argument supported by clear reasoning and evidence, using accurate, credible sources—and to refute counter arguments.

W.8.2 (informational writing) requires students to not only introduce a topic but develop it through facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, examples, and other credible information.

W.8.3 (narrative) requires students to develop events and characters through various literary techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description.

Check out writing standards for the specific grade you teach, referring to the italicized list of terms above, and you will see how close the link to Ideas really is. Now, let’s think about the instructional side of things. Following are some of our favorite books for teaching this trait and all the Common Core skills related to it.


GREAT BOOKS for Teaching
Ideas and Related Common Core Skills

Remember that you don’t always have to share a whole book aloud. Often, you can make a terrific point about clarity or detail through one short, well-chosen passage. And if students choose to read the whole book on their own so much the better.


3 of Vicki’s Favorites . . .  

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. 1952. HarperCollins. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

E.B. White’s beloved classic is a masterpiece of detail. Consider the opening to Chapter III, “Escape”: “The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows” (p. 13). This passage goes on to tease our senses with other aromas until we feel we’re right there in the barn with Wilbur and his companions. White teaches us that by focusing on one kind of sensory detail (smells), we can create a vivid sensory experience. It’s interesting to know also that White spent considerable time observing spiders in order to write with authenticity. Though this is by no means an informational text, it does—like any powerful narrative—depend on the author’s in-depth knowledge of his topic. Check out Chapter V, “Charlotte,” and see if your students learn anything new about spiders. Make a list of the informational details White weaves into his story. One last thing: Good stories have a message, a main idea. Just what is the message we’re meant to take from White’s unforgettable story?

2. How Fast Is It? by Ben Hillman. 2008. Scholastic. Nonfiction informational essays. Grades 4 through 8. Adults love this book, too—thanks to Hillman’s extraordinary collection of facts.

One of the most important concepts we can teach young writers is how vital it is to have a clear main idea—and to connect important details in some way to that main idea. You could hardly do better than this book for teaching that lesson. Every essay in the book (there are 22, and each runs only a short page) relates to one common theme: speed. We learn just from the table of contents how many things depend on speed to function well—from computers to cheetahs, race horses to light. But what’s particularly fascinating about the book is the research behind it. Hillman has taken time to dig for the right details (meaning they’re intriguing and new to many readers), so he can share information like this: “The cheetah also has extra-light bones to keep it nimble; oversize lungs, liver, and heart to enable sudden bursts of energy; large nasal passages for quickly inhaling large amounts of oxygen . . .” (p. 21). We learn something with almost every line. This book is an invaluable resource for illustrating how powerful detail can be in giving informational writing both believability and voice.

3. Our Planet: Change Is Possible by the MySpace Community with Jeca Taudte. 2008. HarperCollins. Nonfiction persuasive and informational essays. Grades 5 through high school.

Argument can be challenging to teach because it’s hard to get our hands on good examples. This terrific little book abounds with persuasive topics that discuss and promote ways of “going green” in our everyday life through thoughtful choices involving cosmetics, food, television, spare time, social life, health—and more. The arguments consistently promote a eco-conscious lifestyle, and do so in a no-punches-pulled manner that make it easy to see what the writer’s position is: “Avoid skin products made from petroleum. You wouldn’t go to the local gas station and douse yourself in gas, so why would you slather it on in your bathroom?” (p. 13) Arguments are readable, filled with voice, and backed by specific, well-researched data. The writers are also good at exploring alternate points of view and distinguishing myth from fact. The presentation makes this book highly inviting and also makes the information accessible even for younger readers. It’s a winner.

3 of Jeff’s Favorites . . .

1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 1994. St. Martin’s Griffin. Fictional narrative. Intended for primary and elementary students, but enjoyable by all ages.

I recently re-read this classic (originally published in 1908) and was blown away again by both the characters and world Kenneth Grahame imagined for readers. To create both the setting and inhabitants of his story, Grahame has to paint close-up, detailed pictures for the story to come to life for readers. Early in the story, Rat introduces Mole to the wonders of life on the river with a boat ride and picnic: “Leaving the main stream, they now passed into what seemed at first sight like a little land-locked lake. Green turf sloped down to either edge, brown shaky tree-roots gleamed below the surface of the quiet water, while ahead of them the silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir, arm-in-arm with a restless dripping mill-wheel, that held up in its turn a grey-gabled mill-house that filled the air with soothing murmur of sound…It was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both fore-paws and gasp, ‘ O my! O my! O my!’” Mole’s reaction is one shared by readers. We are also immersed in these precise details, stirring each of our senses. O my! is right! Grahame’s story is replete with detailed descriptions of not just the river and surrounding fields and underground burrows. Picnic basket contents are brought to life with figurative language: “…a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried…” Even supporting characters, like the Water Rat, are drawn with the kind of precision that reveals both physical and personality traits: “…his paws were thin and long, his eyes much wrinkled at the corners, and he wore small gold earrings in his neatly-set, well-shaped ears.” It’s clear that Grahame, like E.B. White, knows a great deal about the water, land, and creatures he writes about. Your students will know that, of course, moles, rats, frogs, and badgers don’t actually speak, wear clothes, or drive cars, like the characters in the book. After meeting Mole in the first chapter, have your students do a little digging (pun intended) about real-life moles—what about the character of Mole is authentic or based on factual information? Students may even want to further to find out the story behind the story—where did the author’s original idea come from? As Vicki suggested with Charlotte’s Web, “Good stories have a message, a main idea.” That message is the author’s reason for writing in the first place. What message does Kenneth Grahame want your student readers to take away from his animal story?

2.Wild Delicate Seconds by Charles Finn. 2012. Oregon State University Press. Short, nonfiction informational essays. Intended for high school to adult audiences, but passages could be used across all grade levels and content areas.

Charles Finn describes the contents of his book as a collection of nonfiction micro-essays—one to two pages in length, “…each one a description of a chance encounter I had with a member (or members) of the fraternity of wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home.” Each piece is an exemplar of the many forms details might take in writing: sensory details, quotations, observations, facts, images, definitions, and examples. The author gathered information through close, purposeful observations of each animal, and recorded his descriptions and experiences in journals to be crafted later into these focused essays. From Bumble Bees: “I sit watching the bees, their inner-tube bodies overinflated, their legs like kinked eyelashes hanging down. The white noise of their wings soothe me…” From Water Ouzel (also known as dippers, my favorite bird): “The tiny bird dips and dunks…It is tiring to watch: knee bend, knee bend, knee bend, tail twitch, dunking, tail twitch, kneebendkneebendkneebend…” And from Western Toad (offering a counterpoint to The Wind in the Willow’s automobile loving character, Toad of Toad Hall): “It has eyes cowled like headlights, Popeye forearms, and skin that sags. It could be a burp from a tuba.” Finn’s perspective is that of a scientist/poet/storyteller/teacher and clearly, a lover of wildlife. These micro-essays will have a macro impact on your young writers.

3.They Called Themselves the K.K.K. : The Birth of an American Terrorist Group  by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Nonfiction informational/argument/persuasive. Intended for middle and high school students.

If you think about it, from the perspective of the writer, all writing is persuasive. A writer’s job is to persuade readers, from their first sentences, to begin and then continue reading. And they do this, especially in the informational and argument genres, by beginning with a strong main idea and demonstrating immediately to readers that they are experts on their topics. Susan Campbell Bartoletti convinced me of her expertise from the get-go. Her idea for the book, she explains, came from seeing a statue commemorating Confederate general and the first K.K.K. Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest: “’I asked myself: Where are the statues commemorating the victims of Klan violence?” In her A Note to the Reader, before her book actually begins, she tell readers: “You will read the stories of the Ku Klux Klansmen and their victims from a variety of sources, including congressional testimony, interviews, and historical journals, diaries, and newspapers.” She goes on to let readers know that we will see images, cartoons, drawings, and photos from newspapers and personal collections. The author even offers a warning that to be true to the topic and historical time period, readers may experience crude language and offensive/disturbing images that she has left uncensored. I believe the author’s underlying purpose is to inform readers, and because of her balanced, meticulous research, she absolutely leaves readers well informed, enriched, inspired, and thoroughly persuaded about both “…the difficulty of reform…” and the “…terrible things that happen as people stand up for an ideal and strike out against injustice.” This book is a tremendous resource on a difficult topic.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Very shortly, look for ways to link the CCSS with the trait of ORGANIZATION. And within the next few weeks, we’ll also link the writing standards to VOICE and WORD CHOICE, including reviews of favorite books each time. So—welcome to a new school year. Thanks so much for taking time in your busy schedule to visit us. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

A Short Hiatus–Followed by Our Fall Kicker!

Hello to all our friends and fans at Gurus! If you haven’t had time to visit us lately, not to worry! We know August is a particularly busy month for just about everyone, but especially for teachers getting ready to return to the classroom. And a few lucky people out there may still be enjoying vacation or a few quiet days at home. With that in mind, we’re going to prolong our temporary hiatus until JUST AFTER Labor Day. At that time, we want to offer our Fall Kicker, a series of tips to get you ready for teaching the Common Core Standards via literature, and linking the standards to the six traits of writing. Because (as you’ve likely noticed) the Common Core places such heavy emphasis on Ideas, we thought that would make a good place to begin. We’ll list books you are sure to find useful for teaching the trait of ideas and SIMULTANEOUSLY reinforcing many, many strategies connected to the Common Core. I will list and offer a quick review for about six favorites; Jeff will list and review his top six–and you’ll get them all in one package. We’ll cover a range of genres and grade levels, so expect variety. Shortly thereafter, we’ll offer a similar list for Organization. Watch for this upcoming feature as we launch full-tilt into 2012-2013. Thank you for your patience, enjoy the rest of your summer, and plan to visit us again in early September . . . and many times throughout the coming school year.

With all good wishes . . . Vicki & Jeff