Tag Archive: revision

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

Genre: Biographic chapter book

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


In the Classroom

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


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

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

William McKinley

William McKinley


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






About the Author . . .

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

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway

A River of Words

A River of Words

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

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

Author Sneed Collard

Author Sneed Collard

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Fire Birds

Fire Birds

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


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


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

Books for Living

Books for Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Student K’s Story—Instructional “Missed Opportunities”

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

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

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

3—I can write narrative pieces.

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

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

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

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

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

*Repetitive word choices

            *Moments of confusion

            *Repetitive transitional language—lots of “and thens”

            *Missing transitions between paragraphs

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

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

            *Inconsistent verb tense

            *Figurative language     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock—Knock! Bang—Bang! Ding—Dong!

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

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

Reading Recommendations

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

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


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

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

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

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

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

In the Classroom

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coyote Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I learned…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…that I write a lot like Gary Paulsen.

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

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

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

…that editing is different from revising.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

Our January 20 post included a memo distributed by a school district central office a few years ago—a memo designed to recruit volunteers who would recommend budgeting priorities to the local school board. If there is ever a time you want your writing to be concise and punchy, it’s when you’re asking for help. However, this district office apparently didn’t get the memo on writing concise, readable memos. Theirs was vague—and long. Long doesn’t even work for novels unless they’re really good; with memos, it’s a disaster. (If you’ve not read our January 20 post, take a quick look before going on so you can see the unrevised memo—it will help you appreciate what these high school revisers did!)

Turning Real Writing into a Lesson
As I noted last time, I had saved this piece of writing in a file labeled “Real World Writing.” I save all kinds of pieces (to use for lessons or in workshops)—from advertisements and flyers to travel literature, editorials, reviews, recipes, excerpts from textbooks or journals, letters, and more.

I choose them specifically because they need revision. They may be unclear, filled with jargon, over-written, or just contain awkward moments that could use some smoothing out. Whatever the problem(s), they provide a challenge for students looking to sharpen their revision skills. Let me share the steps I followed to turn this particular piece into a very worthwhile lesson on revision, and then I’ll also share the impressive revision I got from one team of students.

1. Prepare the text for editing. First, I retyped the piece so I could put it in larger print and double space it, allowing room for revision. Anyone who has tried revising single-spaced text knows how inhibiting it is to have virtually no room for your inserts and editorial marks.

2. Print copies. I printed out enough copies for each student in the class I was visiting–about 30.

3. Introduce the lesson. I introduced the lesson by suggesting to the class that many pieces of real world writing need revision, and asked them the last time they could recall reading something and thinking to themselves, “I could write that better.” Virtually every hand went up. (This was a good start!)

4. Set the context for the writing. I then gave them the context for the memo—a school district trying to put together a committee of volunteers who would make recommendations to the local school board on top priorities for spending. This memo went out to all parents with children attending schools within the district. We talked about the kind of writing that would make a positive impression on parents. It should be clear and friendly, they told me.

5. Read the copy aloud. I read the memo aloud, and asked for comments. Most students said they needed to hear it again. It didn’t make sense. Several said it was too long. Two or three asked what on earth Volkswagens had to do with education. One said it didn’t sound as if it were written by an educator—it sounded more like it was written by some CEO trying to impress the readers with his vocabulary. I asked if the voice sounded male or female—all but one said male. (I don’t honestly know, so I couldn’t say if they were right.)

6. Hand out copies. After reading the text aloud, I handed out copies so students could read the copy again silently to themselves.

7. Discuss problems. Before they began marking up the text, I asked them to identify, as a class, what they saw as the major problems. What really needed revising? We made a list, and while they mentioned quite a number of things they’d like to change, these were the top three: (1) Make it shorter; (2) Get rid of unneeded information; and (3) Make it sound friendlier—not “like you’re trying to show off”!

8. Work individually. At this point, I asked students to work for a few minutes individually, crossing out anything not needed, adding information, changing wording, or anything else they felt was important.

9. Work in teams of two. When they’d spent about seven or eight minutes on their own, I had them pair up with a partner to write a final revision. This gave them a chance to compare notes, to talk, to rethink anything they didn’t feel was quite right yet, and to combine the best of each student’s individual efforts.

10. Have writers read final drafts aloud. I encouraged writers to read their final revisions aloud to each other, softly, using their ears as well as their eyes to hear how each piece would strike a reader, keeping in mind that this would be read by parents being asked to donate their time.

The Results
Students were invited to read their final drafts aloud for the whole class (they were a very appreciative audience for one another) and to talk about their revision process. Virtually every team had shortened the original considerably—most by at least half. Everyone took out the reference to conjoint analysis, which no one understood, and which seemed unrelated to the issue at hand. (I confess I never looked it up on the Internet—perhaps it is related to budgeting, but it seemed unnecessary and cumbersome.)

Most revisions involved condensing and rewording—as well as making an effort to give the memo a more conversational tone. The students were very audience-sensitive, and several said their parents would throw this memo (the original) away without a second thought. We talked about ways to reach an audience and hold their attention; this is a major focus of the Common Core Standards—and this memo in its original form shows why.

Finally, several students noted that the memo provided no specifics about how to reach someone at the district office “in the unlikely event” (as one put it) that someone should actually want to volunteer (though no one could picture this happening). So they added this information. Many of the revisions were excellent; ALL (without exception) were improvements on the original. Here is one I saved as an example:

Help! Our school is facing serious budget problems, and our school board is seeking suggestions on how to spend limited funds. What are your priorities? We’d like to know! If you can spare an hour or two, please call ###-####. Thank you! We look forward to hearing your ideas!

I think this is an excellent revision by a student. It’s short, it’s friendly, and it’s clear. I know there’s a picky editor out there somewhere saying that high school students shouldn’t use so many exclamation points. As Gilda Radner used to say, “There’s always something.” And normally, I’d agree. But if you take them out of this memo, it suddenly gets all solemn and serious, and the urgency evaporates. What matters is this: High school writers took an inflated, overblown memo all full of itself and turned it into a simple request. Just imagine if this student had been “helping out” at that district office. I can imagine quite a few more volunteers would have shown up.

The Common Core Assessments
It’s worth noting that the upcoming Common Core Assessments for writing will include activities just like this, which is to say, activities requiring revision. That’s because revision is a form of thinking in action, and thinking skills will be the heart and soul of CCSS assessment. Students may be asked to create an ending for writing that doesn’t have one, to condense a wordy piece, to delete sentences that are unrelated to or distract from the central topic, and so on (check out www.smarterbalanced.com for examples). In other words, they’ll be asked to engage in real world writing tasks, much like the one I shared with the high school students. So—the next year or so offers a good time to practice. Check out the online sample items, and if you’d like more, we have books filled with revision and editing activities just like this for grades 2 through 8. They’re titled Creating Revisers and Editors, and each edition is grade specific. You will also find many similar activities in the Write Traits Classroom Kits written by my wonderful co-author Jeff Hicks and me. Check online (Pearson.com, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amazon.com) or call the number below for more information.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Look for our review of Doreen Rappaport’s remarkable book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by. Please come often—and bring friends. If you enjoyed this lesson, let us know—we’ll post more revision examples! And remember . . . for the very best writing workshops featuring traits, standards, process, workshop, and literature, please phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

OK–maybe “terrified” isn’t quite the word. How about nervous? Apprehensive? Uncertain? Stop right there. After all, you teach writing well, don’t you? Maybe brilliantly! So you need to feel intrepid. Start by putting the standards into everyday language to show them for what they are–then you can sail right into them as if you’d been living with them all your life (which, actually, you probably have).

What’s really embedded in those standards?

Something that has been overlooked amidst all the hoopla of the past several years is that the standards are not all that demanding. Really? Yes, really. They’re basically common sense expectations about writing that in fact have been around for years. If you ever took a class–K through college–where you were required to write, you encountered the standards. It’s just that now they’re more clearly articulated. They’re formally expressed. And they appear in lists, grade by grade. If you ever want to make something formidable, put it in a list. Bingo. Paragraphs never intimidate us somehow, but lists? And . . . having said that, let me share a very non-intimidating summary list with you. If you skim through the standards (which you should do routinely, as familiarity breeds courage), you’ll see that at heart the standards for writing comprise very reasonable requests that any good teacher of writing would (or does) make. Here they are, in everyday language (jargon is another intimidator of the first order, as students always learn in a good writing class):

  1. Introduce your topic
  2. Give reasons for any assertions you make
  3. Supply any facts the reader needs
  4. Make sure your information is ordered in a logical, easy to follow way
  5. If you don’t know much about your topic, do some research
  6. Write clearly so that what you say makes sense to readers
  7. Take time to revise
  8. Connect thoughts so the reader can see how you got from A to B
  9. Provide an ending to wrap up your story or discussion
  10. Choose your words with care
  11. Use conventions thoughtfully to bring out meaning–and VOICE!
  12. Edit your work

See? Logical, simple, common sense stuff. And, by the way, things we have been taught and have been teaching for years. How do we know this?

Some familiar comments

Just consider the following teacher comments (pulled from real papers, by the way). Do any of these sound familiar? Maybe you have said or written one of the following–or something like it:

  • This is unclear.
  • What are you trying to say here?
  • What is your MAIN point?
  • You need more detail/information/support.
  • Tell me more about this.
  • I’m not sure what you mean here.
  • Give me an example.
  • Do you have proof of this?
  • Do you have a source for this?
  • Edit this passage carefully.
  • Try reading this aloud to see if you want to make any changes.
  • Is this the word you wanted/meant to use?
  • I’m not following your thinking here.
  • You seemed to off the track a little here! 
  • Show me how these two thoughts are connected.
  • Are you writing about ONE main idea–or two?
  • I love this idea, but I want to know more.
  • Do you know where to look for additional information?

If any of these sound even a little familiar, then you have been at least emphasizing the spirit of the common core standards. I don’t say “teaching” because of course teaching takes more than pointing out problems. It takes modeling, identifying stellar examples from literature–and having students become revisers. More on that in a moment . . .

Setting the standards higher

What?! Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, because the common core standards for writing, as they now exist, are just what they purport to be: a list of basic expectations that, if met, define what it means to be a competent writer. Which is not to say an exciting or earth shaking writer. So–is that enough? Well, would it be enough for you? And if not, why should it be enough for our students? After all, who wants to be competent when it’s possible to rock the world?

What do we do to challenge writers who can do more? We could define standards that exist in the real world of writing–expectations that go beyond the routine. And by doing so, we give students a reason to write. No one writes to place commas correctly in a series or to match subject and verb. Those are tools of writing–not goals. We write to enlighten readers, entertain them, make them laugh or cry or remember, or shake them up. And without reasons like that, we lose the ONLY thing that will EVER lead to higher achievement in writing: motivation. So here’s my list–not a list of standards, but rather, a list of goals for real-world writing. Achieving any of these is an enormous measure of success. Don’t just adopt this list as is; use it as a starting point to define writing success in your own classroom. You may wish to add things you and your students have already done.

Goals for real-world writing

  1.  Write an editorial that gets published in your local paper.
  2. Write an editorial that persuades someone to take action or reverse a decision.
  3. Write a letter (to any corporation or well-known person) that gets a response.
  4. Write a blog, wiki, or podcast that draws an audience.
  5. Write a product review that influences sales.
  6. Write a resume that gets you a job–or interview.
  7. Write a letter of recommendation that gets someone else a job or interview.
  8. Write a poem or story that gets published.
  9. Write a report that prompts readers to ask questions or do research.
  10. Adapt one form of communication to create another: e.g., turn a report into a journal, poem, play, or video.
  11. As a writer, work with an illustrator to create a finished piece–or, as an illustrator, work with a writer.
  12. Review or edit another writer’s work to prepare it for publication.

Real writing = real results. Wait, though. How do we prepare students for writing at this level? Can we even do it? Of course. We’ve underestimated what students can do for far too long. The great Donald Graves warned us of this years ago. Imagine yourself riding a bike or walking a tightrope when everyone watching thinks and fears you will fall. How do you suppose you’ll do? So believe. Then do these four practical things:

Four steps to success in real world writing

1. Model. Model. Model. Every form of writing you can. Not WHOLE essays and stories, but little pieces. Do it often and talk about your work. Be good at it, but not too good. Ask for help from your students. They will gladly give it, and will learn the same way you do–by teaching.

2. Share the BEST literature you can. Read aloud, no matter how “adult” you think your students are. Likely they’ll enjoy it more than they let on, and they will most surely learn from it. Provide what is so rare these days: opportunities to just listen to a human voice conveying meaning and emotion. And by all means, save favorite passages for discussion and to use as models.

3. Give your students time: time to find topics, to do research, to draft and revise, and to do any final editing and publishing appropriate for their grade level. Don’t rush. If you rush, the first thing to go will be reflection, and that’s the thinking part. Next to go will be revision, and that’s the heart and soul of writing.

4. Revise to learn. Meaning what? Meaning that your best curriculum is found right within your students’ own writing. Save sentences or short passages that don’t quite work, and post them–anonymously if you like (I always did it this way) or the writer can identify him- or herself (some prefer this). Don’t pick passages that will embarrass the writer, naturally; but choose something that poses a real problem, a passage that’s vague or one where the writer got tangled up in language that doesn’t communicate to the reader. Ask two questions: (1) What is this writer trying to say? and (2) How could the writer make this meaning clear? Have students rewrite the passage, then compare with a partner. Share results. That’s it. If you used just one strategy to teach writing (other than simply doing it, of course), I’d recommend this one. Students really learn to write by discussing and revising what does not work. And as a bonus, they love doing it. (Our kits are FILLED with lessons based on this strategy–but you can do the very same thing using your own students’ work.)

Important Link . . .

Current research supports what most of us have long believed: that writing directly improves reading skills. In other words, one of the best ways to teach reading is through direct instruction in writing. To learn more, check out Marshall Memo 417, January 3, 2012: http://www.marshallmemo.com  Look for an article titled “The road to writing proficiency,” a summary from the recent Harvard Educational Review. Thanks for dropping by–and do bring friends! We’ll be reviewing a new book by Richard Peck, right here on Gurus, early next week.