Tag Archive: narrative writing



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

Genre: Teacher resource book

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

1. Why Read?

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

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

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

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

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

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

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.


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



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


The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Writing:

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

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

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

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

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

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

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


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

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

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

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

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

Your Birthday in History

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

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

Argumentative Writing:

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

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

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

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

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

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s Butterfly

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

imgres-4 imgres-5


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

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

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

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

#1—Do not over-model

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

(Page 137)

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


About the author . . .

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .


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

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

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


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.


Getting to the Core of the Common Core


Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

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

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


A Caveat

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


Two Things to Notice

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

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


The Top 8

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

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

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

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

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

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

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

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

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

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


What kinds of purposes are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

Example 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

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

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

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

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

World without Fish

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

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

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

Teaching Leads

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

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

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

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

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

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

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

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

Harris and Me

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

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

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

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

The Animal Dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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


Teaching Detail

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

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

FEATURE 4: Structure

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

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

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

Main Point or Argument & Support

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

Revealing the Solution

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

Comparison and Contrast

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

Question and Answer

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


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

Step by Step

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

Chronological Order

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

Visual Patterns

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

Point and Counterpoint

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

Recurring Theme

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

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

Planning Your Writing

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


Drama: A Different Organizational Design

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

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

Act 1

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

Act 2

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

Act 3

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


PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

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

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

Teaching Structure

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

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

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150


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

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


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

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

BIG Book in a Small Package

10 Essential Writing Lessons

10 Essential Writing Lessons by Megan S. Sloan. 2013. New York: Scholastic.
Reviewed by Vicki Spandel
Genre: Teacher resource
Grade levels: Primary focus is 3 to 5, but teachers at any grade level will find this book helpful
Length: 144 pages, including graphic organizers
Features: Printable graphic organizers, step-by-step lessons and detailed instructions, teacher and student writing samples, expansive list of recommended children’s books

This book packs a punch. It’s a sleek and concise guide to CCSS essentials for writing, but it’s so much more than this. Its modest 144 pages are filled to the brim with information, ideas, suggestions, and step-by-step guidance that could very well change the way you teach writing—forever. You can finish it over a weekend, but don’t sit down to read without a pencil in one hand and a pack of sticky notes in the other because you’ll be using both. Here’s a brief run-down of the content covered within these 10 Lessons (actual titles differ slightly):

• Learning to think like a writer
• Discovering personal writing topics—and writing a narrative
• Learning to narrow your topic
• Organizing information through multiple paragraphs
• Telling more—the art of using detail
• Writing poetry (exploring language)
• Writing a literary essay
• Writing an informational essay
• Writing an opinion piece
• Writing a research report

Each chapter is referred to as a “Lesson,” but this is a little misleading (in a good way) because every “Lesson” spans multiple days and incorporates numerous mini lessons—along with countless tips and strategies. It’s rare to find a book so short and readable with so much immediately usable content.

Connection to the Common Core is obvious throughout—especially in the second half of the book, which deals with writing across multiple genres. Those looking for a way to meet CCSS requirements will find much to love here because it definitely addresses those concerns but does so in a conversational, down-to-earth style that makes the book highly inviting. Here’s the best part: You can actually picture yourself DOING the very things Megan Sloan does with her students.

Thinking like a writer: The first step
The Common Core doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It really doesn’t. The writing standards are not designed to cover “Everything you ever wanted to know about writing.” And yet, we sometimes read them as if that were the intent—overlooking the fact that the Core focuses on measurable goals. That’s its purpose. But that’s not where good writing instruction begins.

Megan Sloan reminds us that long, long before we measure anything, we begin by helping students think like writers. Lesson 1 (think Chapter 1) lays a foundation for helping them do just that.

First, students are asked to keep a writer’s notebook, a place for jotting down writing ideas, observations, and personal thoughts. Megan asks students to build picture collages in their notebooks, capturing things important to them. This becomes one go-to place for writing ideas throughout the year.

Second, Lesson 1 looks at reasons we read. Students brainstorm the kinds of things they read—everything from texts and emails to books and newspapers—and think why someone wrote these things and who the intended audience might have been. This part of the Lesson echoes Donald Graves’ often quoted remark that writing is the making of reading. Understanding this changes how we see writing—and of course, how we write.

Third, students begin to explore the power of mentor texts—which are featured throughout the book. Early on, Megan shares Eve Bunting’s biography Once Upon a Time. In that book, Bunting explains how she became a writer, how writers work, and where they get their ideas. This prompts valuable discussion among students, who are sometimes surprised to discover how hard professional writers have to work at choosing topics, figuring out how to begin, and making sure their writing moves an audience. With this book, Megan begins creating a writing community that includes everyone, students and professionals alike.

And finally, Megan introduces her students to the concept of listing—an invaluable strategy for generating and organizing thoughts. It’s easier, faster, and more flexible than webbing or outlining, and can be used with any form of writing.

Modeling, modeling, modeling
As we discover in this opening Lesson, Megan models almost everything. She does it in such a natural, here-let-me-show-you sort of way, though, that it’s seamlessly integrated into her instruction—no fuss or fanfare. To kick things off, she brainstorms her own personal lists of Good Times and Bad Times—then picks one of the ideas she’s come up with and writes about it. Students coach her, helping her flesh out the details. Later, she shares the result so they can see and hear the contribution their coaching has made. Next, students work through these same steps, discovering how much easier writing can be when someone has shown you how it looks as it unfolds.

Narrative first
Though all three of the CCSS major genres are covered in the book, Megan begins with narrative. The first five Lessons focus on a blend of narrative/memoir and the foundational skills students need to both think as writers and to function effectively in a writing class—things like choosing and narrowing topics, brainstorming, conferring, working in small groups, learning from mentor texts, coaching peers, asking good questions, and handling feedback well.

Megan doesn’t rush to expose students to all genres as quickly as possible, but proceeds at a manageable pace, beginning with what most writers find familiar and comfortable: writing about themselves, their memories, their families, their experiences. She has confidence that strong beginnings will pay dividends as students move into the genres of informational writing and opinion—and indeed (as we see from writing samples later in the book) they do.

Megan Sloan has transformed scaffolding into an art form. She has an incredibly keen sense of what students need to know and do in order to take the “next step”—whatever that might be.

Virtually every Lesson opens with an exploration of ideas designed to give students a context for what they’re about to learn: Why do we tell stories? Why do we write informational pieces? What’s an opinion? Armed with a basic understanding of the concept at hand, students are ready for examples.

Examples in Megan’s classroom come in several forms. First, students read or hear mentor texts, which they discuss as a class or in small groups or both. Then, Megan shares her own writing, sometimes writing in front of the class, sometimes reading a draft she’s already written. Next, students create an original example of their own by writing as a whole-class team. It works like this.

Before writing their own pieces, students do shared writing, meaning they compose a draft together under the guidance of the teacher, who records their words—sometimes prompting them with questions. For reluctant or challenged writers, this is extremely non-threatening and highly satisfying. They get all the gratification of composing without the stress that often comes with trying something new and complex.

Finally, students are ready to work individually. By this time, they’ve seen both product and process. They know what the end result should (or at least can) look like. They have seen multiple examples, so they also know that successful outcomes don’t all look the same. This isn’t about formula; it’s about possibilities. Students also know many strategies they can apply, from prewriting through publication. It’s a deceptively simple and overwhelmingly powerful approach to writing instruction.

Megan likes to confer with her students as much as possible. However, she doesn’t make rules for herself that no one (at least no one human) can fulfill: e.g., Confer with every student on every piece of writing. Instead, she confers with as many students as time permits, roaming the room to see who’s stuck or has a question.

The key to a good conference, she tells us, is simple: Listen. The writer should do most of the talking: “It is important to leave a student’s writing on his or her lap so to speak” (p. 23). A conference, she says, is a time to provide encouragement—and to ask questions about something that isn’t clear or could use a little expansion.

The conference is always directed by the writer. Megan asks, “What kind of help can I provide?” Knowing they’ll be asked this question encourages students to consider ahead of time what they need most at that moment. Only the writer can know where the real roadblocks are. So Megan gives her students responsibility for helping identify those roadblocks; then they can work together on overcoming them.

Personal Topics = Voice
Underlying all of Megan’s teaching is the importance of choice. There are no topic-specific assignments, no directions to write about “an important family member” or “a time you’ll always remember” or “your most embarrassing or frightening moment.” Instead, she tells us, “It is important for students to discover their own writing topics” because that way “they will value the writing” and “It will be close to their hearts” (23). That’s magical. I’m often asked, “How do we teach voice?” What I’ve learned through the years is that we don’t, really. Instead, we get out of the way. Once we set students free to find the right topic and audience, the excitement that freedom generates spills over as voice.

Lesson 6: Writing Poetry
Without stealing Megan’s thunder by revealing too much detail, I want to draw your attention to two Lessons I particularly loved—one on poetry, one on opinion writing. Lesson 6 deals with poetry.

Students begin by recording favorite lines—in other words, by loving poetry. (If you think about it, isn’t that where poets and songwriters begin, too?)

Then they explore—What do we notice or love about poetry? One student says, “Poems can make us happy, sad, laugh, cry, or tug at our heart” and another says, “Poems are not to be read only once” (62).

They also set about discovering “found” poetry: lines that sound like (and ultimately are) poetry—even if that wasn’t the original intention. With the premiere of the new “Cosmos” (now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on FOX and National Geographic), I couldn’t help thinking of two immortal lines by the late Carl Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos”: We are all star stuff . . . and . . . The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I also thought of the moving words Toni Morrison wrote at the end of her Introduction to Remember: The Journey to School IntegrationThe path was not entered, the gate was not opened, the road was not taken only for those brave enough to walk it. It was for you as well. In every way, this is your story.

Inspiration doesn’t come just from books and video, though. Images from a mentor text can also inspire first lines—and you won’t believe the lines these young writers come up with. They visit an on-campus garden for inspiration, too, noticing daffodils bending into each other—as if “whispering secrets,” one student observes. And so begins another poem.

Poetry continues throughout the year as students add photos to their journals and write about them. Each poem is an exploration of language and a chance to look more closely at the world.

Megan closes by encouraging teachers to experiment with many kinds of poetry: acrostic, haiku, and shape poems. But it’s interesting to me that the focus of this Lesson is on free verse, which as its name implies, frees the writer to concentrate on words and images, not rhymes—which can sound forced. In quiet and subtle ways, this Lesson—like all of them—is teaching students to think.

Lesson 9: Writing an Opinion Piece
Lesson 9 is particularly important because opinion or argument writing is a challenging form, the portion of the CCSS that many teachers find most difficult to dissect. Just turning students loose to state an opinion and “back it with evidence” does not necessarily result in strong writing. There’s simply too much to learn about this form—and often, students aren’t sure where to begin. This Lesson offers some sure footing for those finding the path a bit treacherous.

As usual, Sloan begins at the beginning, with the fundamental question: What is an opinion? Students spend one full period discussing this, charting facts and opinions and learning to understand the difference. The creation of charts is significant (not only for this Lesson, but throughout the book). Students have visual representation of their thinking before them all the time, to reflect on, to question, to expand. It’s a continual reinforcement of what they’re learning and a springboard to new ideas.

For mentor texts, Sloan uses both books and articles, searching carefully for topics that are both controversial and of interest to young readers: e.g., Should a highway be built in Tanzania if it will block the path of migrating animals? Should hawks in New York City be allowed to build a nest on an apartment building—even if it means creating quite an unsightly mess on residents’ balconies?

As students read these pieces, discuss them, and chart their views, they see that controversies have two sides. They’ve chosen a topic—the hawks’ nest—but which side of the controversy are they on? Rebuild the nest—or oppose rebuilding? Is one side stronger than the other? As they quickly discover, answering such questions sometimes requires digging for more information than a single article can offer. And just like that, research on hawks becomes their homework assignment.

By Day 4 of the Lesson, students are planning a piece of shared writing, working together. They’re not drafting yet—they’re making notes and shaping the skeleton of what will become their opinion piece. They begin by brainstorming possible leads, then sketch out a design that includes reasons and support, plus a conclusion. I appreciate how careful Megan is not to turn this plan into a formula. She reminds them that as writers, they may have one, two, or three (or even more) reasons for a given opinion. She is not pushing them toward a five-paragraph essay, but inviting them to construct a guided tour through an issue. By now they’ve chosen a side, and they’re growing increasingly passionate about their argument.

On Day 5, the class works on a draft together. Students do the thinking as Megan records their ideas, guiding them with probing questions that encourage them to think ever more deeply through their argument: Is it important for readers to picture the nest? How can we show that the other side is not as strong as ours? The result is a strong whole-class essay that will serve as a model for the personal writing to come.

Days 6, 7, and 8 are spent moving students toward independence. They generate possible topics of their own, carefully plan their own writing, and begin their drafts. Within days, they have gone from figuring out what an opinion actually is to designing and writing independent drafts on a self-selected topic.

Let’s get excited about research! (Say what?)
As an ardent fan of research, I was thrilled that Megan saved this topic for Lesson 10—the final Lesson of the book. If you remember research as tedious, you may be tempted to skip this Lesson altogether. Please don’t. It’s the frosting on the cake. In Megan’s class, research becomes an opportunity for adventure, an exciting quest for answers to a writer’s burning questions. Throughout Lesson 10, she shows how to actually teach research—not simply assign it. And believe it or not, everyone has a rousing good time.

For the shared writing portion of this Lesson, someone suggests writing about Helen Keller, though admittedly not many of the students have even heard of her. Ironically, that makes Keller the perfect topic because every new bit of information they uncover holds the promise of an artifact at an archaeological dig. By the end of the Lesson, students have discovered that Keller was blind, deaf—and “unruly.” They know about her famous friends, stunning accomplishments, and lifelong passions. At the close of their class paper they write, “Helen Keller inspires us with her determination and courage. She gives us hope and makes us believe we can overcome anything” (129). Such is the power of research—and of extraordinary instruction.

This remarkable Lesson is a fitting place to end the book not only because knowing how to uncover information is a vital part of any writer’s repertoire, but also because it reminds us that good research is not just for the infamous “research paper.” In reality, it’s essential to all genres, including narrative.

Highly Recommended
Megan Sloan shows us how to help students think as writers think, then shows us how to guide them through the fundamentals of three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and opinion. The results are a striking match with the CCSS because the standards focus on the same foundational qualities of good writing that you’ll see emphasized throughout this book: clear central topic, good use of detail, sense of purpose and audience, precise wording, strong organizational flow and transitions, striking beginnings and endings. They also—and we often forget this part—highlight the value of research. The standards emphasize what we must do; Megan’s book shows us how.

I urge you to buy 10 Essential Writing Lessons. It will take you right inside the classroom of a master teacher who is herself a writer, and who finds great joy in the teaching of writing. You will love the journey.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ve focused recently on opinion writing and argument. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Common Core informational writing standards, with a few recommended mentor texts for both elementary and secondary students. Until then, thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you like our site, please tell your friends about us. The more, the merrier. Remember, for the BEST workshops and classroom demo’s blending traits, CCSS, and stellar literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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.





Zebra Forest 2


Zebra Forest. 2013. Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 200 pp.

Genre: Young adult novel

Ages: Grades 5 and up (The book features realistic characters and mature themes that will also appeal to older readers, including adults)



As Zebra Forest opens, eleven-year-old Annie Snow has just completed an essay on her three wishes for summer: going to the movies, swimming, visiting friends at camp. Only trouble is, she doesn’t care one whit about any of these things; they’re three invented wishes made up to pacify the teacher. Annie’s real wishes (which she shares with no one) are to grow tall, have an adventure, and meet her father. Unfortunately, none of these genuine wishes seems destined to come true—especially the third, since she and her nine-year-old brother Rew have grown up believing that their father is dead. But is he? Ready or not, we’re about to find out.

Out of nowhere, a menacing stranger claiming to be Andrew Snow appears at the family’s door, throwing their everyday life into turmoil. This disheveled man, so different from the heroic, swashbuckling figure the children had fantasized about for years (when they believed their real father dead), is not only very much alive but has just escaped from the nearby prison. Rew, angry and resentful, refuses to believe that this scruffy, ill-mannered character could possibly be his father, and wants him out of their house and their lives. But Annie isn’t so sure, and wants to learn everything she can about Andrew Snow’s past—and hers. Gran, presumably, could explain what’s going on here. But she retreats into her own private world, leaving the children to cope with a highly dangerous and adult situation as best they can.

Advancing with freight train force, Gewirtz’s deftly constructed story uncovers family secrets one by one, showing the wounds inflicted both by truth—and by concealment, however well-intended. The characters are real and stark, the plot compelling and believable. Zebra Forest reads (and feels) much like a stage play. It has the same intensity, occurring within a confined space from which there is no escape—for the characters or for us. Wisely, Gewirtz refuses to retreat behind easy answers, giving us a memorable and compelling book about a dysfunctional family desperately struggling to get a toehold on normalcy.


In the Classroom

1. Reading. Zebra Forest is an excellent candidate for reading aloud or for discussion in a small book group. It’s a fast read, so you can preview it within a couple of hours. The 200-page book is broken into 39 chapters, so read-alouds with your students can run anywhere from 10 minutes on up. As noted in the Summary, the novel reads like a play, and like any good play (or poem), it packs a lot of meaning into a few words. It’s also a novel that sparks controversy both because of its subject matter and because not all readers are likely to respond the same way to the characters—or their actions. Allow plenty of time for discussion and/or writing as you share the book with students.

2. Background. Zebra Forest deals with some difficult (some would say dark) issues, such as imprisonment, anger, manslaughter, abandonment, marital discord, and family secrets. Occasionally, critics will argue that such topics are not appropriate (or desirable) for young readers, and that books for students in upper elementary or middle school should be lighter in theme or tone. After reading several chapters, you may wish to discuss this openly with your students. Do they agree with these more cautious critics? Or do they feel that it is important for young adult literature to deal openly with such topics? Writing option: Should students of a certain age have the right to choose their own literature, or should they be guided by adults’ choices?

3. Central theme. Does Zebra Forest have a central theme or message?  If so, how would you express that theme? Does it have to do with deception, love, or both?

4. Argument writing. One of the books recurring themes of this book has to do with lying: the kinds of lies we tell, and the consequences of lying. You might begin a discussion on this topic by identifying some of the lies that are told in the story—or have been told even before the story begins. Who lies to whom? Which lies are most significant—or most damaging? Are any of them incidental, or even necessary? Consider two examples: Gran lies to Annie and Rew about the fact that their father is still alive—and in prison. Annie lies to her social worker about Gran’s mental and physical health so that she and Rew won’t be sent to a foster home. Are these lies different—or is a lie a lie no matter what? Using examples from the book (and/or from personal experience), have students craft an argument defending or contradicting this statement: Lying is sometimes justified.

5. Structure and setting. Think about where the story takes place. Even though it’s called Zebra Forest, do we spend time in the forest—or mostly see it out the window? Why would this be? If students were to produce this story in another medium, would they see it as a stage play—or a film? Writing option: Talk or write about why a producer might choose one over the other (play versus film). Also, who might students cast in the roles of Rew, Annie, and Andrew Snow? (Note:  Zebra Forest has a very defined setting: Gran’s house. The primary characters rarely leave this confined space. Also, the story depends more on dialogue than on action. These are characteristics of stage drama more than of cinema, which tends to depend more heavily on action, expansive sets, and numerous characters.)

6. Voice: Who’s telling the story? In any narrative, the author must decide who will tell the story—and that person’s voice and perspective tend to dominate, so the choice is important. Why did author Adina Rishe Gewirtz choose to tell this particular story in Annie’s voice—versus, say, Rew’s, Gran’s, or Andrew Snow’s? What sort of voice is it? (Consider rereading the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 to recapture first impressions of Annie’s voice.) How might the story have been different if told by Gran, Rew, or Andrew Snow? Writing option: Have students choose one major event from the story (e.g., when Andrew Snow first appears or when Rew discovers Annie did not mail the letter requesting help) and write it in another character’s voice. What do students learn about plot and character development from this writing?

7. Voice: Overall tone. This book has been described by various critics and readers as a mystery or thriller. Would your students agree? Brainstorm some words that describe (as your students hear it) the overall tone of the book (moody, threatening, comical, mysterious, uplifting, etc.). Can you identify one or more passages to illustrate your description? Question: As readers, how does the author want us to feel when reading this book? Terrified? Curious? Hopeful? Entertained? Anxious? Or—something else? Explain your feelings.

8. Character. The Common Core Standards for narrative writing indicate that characters often change throughout a narrative, and it is this change that helps us define who they are. Talk about the primary characters within this narrative: Rew, Annie, Gran, and Andrew Snow. Do any of them change? Do all of them? Which of the four changes the most, and why? Writing option: Ask students to write a short character sketch based on any one of the four characters. They should define who the person is when we first encounter him or her (using quotations or specific references to support their characterization), then describe who that person becomes by the end of the book (again, using specific references as evidence).

9. Organizational structure. The CCSS remind us that good narrative structure calls for a turning point: a moment when the action takes a new course or one of the characters experiences a serious revelation or change of heart. Can you identify such a moment (or more than one) in Zebra Forest? What is the impact of a turning point on the reader? Why are turning points so important to narrative writing? What is the parallel to a turning point in informational writing or argument?

10. Organizational structure. Zebra Forest is a relatively short novel, yet it is divided into 39 chapters. That is quite a few. What triggers an author’s decision to begin a new chapter? Is it similar to beginning a new paragraph? See if you can identify one instance in which the ending of one chapter suggests it is time to begin something fresh. Quote from the book to support your choice. Question: How would this book—or any other—be a different experience for the reader OR the writer if it were written as one large piece instead of being broken into chapters?

11. Argument: some philosophical questions. Following are a few questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any—or have students pose a question of their own—to answer orally, through a podcast, or in writing:

  •  It’s apparent that Gran loves Rew and Annie. Yet the life they live with her is anything but traditional. In some ways, they care for her more than she for them. Their school attendance is less than regular. She tells them almost nothing about their parents or their childhood. Is this fair—or might they be better off in another home? Why?
  • When the prison break occurs, Andrew Snow has two decisions to make: whether to leave the prison at all, and where to go if he does leave. Does he make good decisions? Why do you think so?
  • The social worker Adele Parks knows that the children’s life with Gran is not exactly as Annie describes it—yet she allows it to continue. Is this an act of friendship—or does she just not want to be bothered digging for the truth? If you were in Adele Parks’ place, would you do the same? Think about long-term consequences in justifying your decision.
  • Who is the bravest character in this book and why do you think so? Quote from the book to support your opinion. Is courage an essential characteristic for a major character in this or any book?
  • Rew, desperate to be rescued, pleads with Annie to mail a letter to the police, but though she promises to do so, she changes her mind. Is it all right for Annie to break her promise to Rew—or should she have mailed that letter? What are the positives and negatives of either choice?
  • During much of the story, Annie identifies with political hostages. Is she a hostage? Why or why not?

12. Comparison: pirates, spies, and heroes. Have any of your students read the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson? If so, you may wish to discuss Rew and Annie’s obsession with this book. Why do they love it so much? What does it represent for them? As part of this discussion, reread the fantasy life the children concoct for their father before they know he is actually alive (pp. 21-26). Can we draw any comparisons between the main character in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, and this fantasy version of Andrew Snow? How does the real Andrew Snow compare to the invented hero Rew and Annie imagine early on?  

13. The beginning: An effective introduction? The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion. Some critics have said that Zebra Forest begins slowly, so that it takes us a while to get into the story. Do your students agree—or does that first chapter serve an important function? Read Chapter 1 aloud again with this question in mind: Is this chapter vital—or could we skip right over it and begin with Chapter 2? Have students respond to this question, through discussion or writing, quoting from the book to support their position.

14. Presentation. Take a good look at the cover for the book. What do you see? What associations do you make? What does the cover design suggest about the book even before we begin reading?

15. The ending: A good resolution to the story? The Common Core Standards suggest that a good ending should flow naturally from events within the story. Read Chapter 39 again, asking just how effective it is. Does this chapter tie up the loose ends of the story effectively? Flow from the earlier elements of the story? Hold any surprises for readers? Would your students change anything if they could? Predictions: Andrew Snow, we’re told, will likely be out of prison within five years or so. What is likely to happen at that point? Will he come back to Gran’s house? Why? If he does, will Rew, Annie, and Gran want to see him? What makes you think so? Write about this.

16. Personal connection/expository essay. At the beginning of the book, Annie mentions three wishes that are important to her: growing taller, having an adventure (she most certainly manages that), and meeting her father (a wish she does not know is about to come true). If you could make three serious wishes right now, what would they be? Write an expository essay outlining your wishes and what makes them important to you.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be reviewing a favorite book—and it’s a surprise. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.





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

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

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


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

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

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


In the Classroom

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


Coming up on Gurus . . .

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




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

Genre: Informational chapter book

Grade Levels: 5 and up

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

266 pages (including end matter)


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

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

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

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

In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Coming up on Gurus . . . 
Vicki reviews Andrea Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Drop by any time to see what’s new or mine our archive for some gold you may have missed. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


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.