Tag Archive: six traits


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

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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

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

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


About Author Don Brown . . .

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

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

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



Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___ Sharks live in the ocean.

___ Sharks have many teeth.

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

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

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

imgres-5       imgres-6

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


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

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

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


Coming up on Gurus . . .


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

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

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book/chapter book

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

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

Welcome Back, Gurus followers!

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



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

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

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


In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

Brief Introduction by Vicki

Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand, and while composing a post related to that marvelous adventure (to appear here soon!), I stumbled upon yet another opportunity–the chance to revisit Diddorol, the magical gaming kingdom developed by middle school teacher Larry Graykin, who is easily one of the most inventive teachers I’ve ever encountered. Writing instruction in Larry’s classroom has all the charm and allure of any video game, and in the four years since I interviewed him last, I learned that Diddorol has evolved. The rules for earning points in this gaming system may appear complex, but everything comes into focus if you keep in mind that Graykin’s goals are ingeniously simple: to motivate student writers–big time, to get them not only knowing but actually using the six traits, to maximize their opportunities to work collaboratively in teams, to expose students to as many forms of writing (e.g., fiction and nonfiction) within a short time as possible, and to ensure that every student has an opportunity some way, somehow, to show off his or her strengths–editing, voice, word choice, original thinking, or whatever. But enough from me. Let’s let Larry, who invented the kingdom, tell its story . . .

Kingdom of Diddorol Poster

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

In Larry’s Own Words

During the summer of 2012, as most people tuned in to watch the world’s best athletes compete in the Olympics, I was puzzling and planning.  The prior school year, I had piloted a game overlay about a fantasy Kingdom called Diddorol. You can learn about that here:


And in more detail, here in a recent article I wrote for In Perspective:

http://www.ohiorc.org/adlit/InPerspective/Issue/2015-03/Article/vignette2.aspx ].

The experience was amazing for both my students and me, but at the end of the year, I had a problem: As my class was multiage grades 7 & 8, I was going to have half of the same students coming back to me. I could not use the same game again…that’d be boring.

Well, I called it a problem above, but it really was an opportunity. Why not experiment and see what other games I might come up with? I decided to pilot three new overlays, one per trimester. That also meant that I could focus on one at a time.

And so, I set in on Trimester One’s overlay.  I started with a goal to have students read each other’s writing more often, and to view the pieces critically. I also wanted to try building more intrinsic reasons for students to complete their work, and that meant collaboration. It occurred to me that I could have the students work on teams. And this evolved into the Diddorol Olympics.

But how to transition within the greater game’s story arc?  In the storyline the prior year, King Law had resigned as ruler of Diddorol to become a private reading tutor. In his stead, Queen Justine was put in charge. After a year of stressful complications, it only made sense that a benevolent dictator would seek to provide a spell of respite to the denizens.

After this, I contemplated what the rules might be.  Thinking about what problems might occur, what imbalances might exist for different students of differing abilities, I created special [virtual] equipment and mechanisms. Out of these considerations, the game’s structure emerged:

Kingdom of Diddorol

Kingdom of Diddorol

The Core

I don’t mean Common Core. I mean what’s important in teaching writing: The Six Traits. As I did with the original game, I used the Six Traits as the foundation. It’s a natural, as it directly addresses the most important aspects of writing, and thus addresses all the most important standards–Common or otherwise. My school adopted the traits several years ago, so my 7th and 8th graders have had at least a few years of experience with them, but we still take a few days at the beginning of the year to review them and discuss how they’re used. I like to have kids assess sample pieces and see how close they come to my assessments.

The Basics

In each class (I have five, of about 20-25 students each), there would be two teams. Each week, I would announce an open topic (e.g., love, pain, ambition), and each student would be expected to write a piece that somehow tied into that topic. The writings would be assessed on two of the Six Traits, which would be announced with the topic. At the end of the week, team members would share their writing with one another, and choose a paper from all that were written to send to a weekly competition. A presenter would be chosen by the team, who would then read the chosen piece, and I would orally assess each piece, referring to the rubrics posted around the room.

Topic Choice + Two Traits

Topic Choice + Two Traits

The Complications

When you think about it, most game rules are complications. They turn what might be a chore in other circumstances into something fun. The basic are fine, but how to spice it up?

First, the two teams could have slightly different objectives…. I thought about how I might achieve this fairly, and decided on a simple twist: Fiction vs. Non-fiction. For the first half of the trimester, one team would write about the imagined while the other focused on what’s real. At half-time, they’d swap sides.  Doing this would accomplish a couple other goals I thought worthy: Help the students to see how the Six Traits apply to either category of writing, and improve the odds of students writing non-fiction more often.

Next, I wanted to find strategies to encourage participation. My game overlays use an accumulated experience point (XP) system for assessment:

0 XP   = start point

225     = a passing grade (D-)

300     = D

600     = C

900     = B

1400    = A

1800 XP is required to get an A+.

But for this game I needed a secondary counter for team success. Olympics points (OP) were created. I would offer XP based on the team’s success to those students who did the expected work, and the total XP (experience points) earned would be based on OP (Olympics points).

Here’s how it would work:

  •  The team gets 1 OP for each paper turned in. (Since teams were about 12 students in size, this would be about 12 OP.)
  • Students in my class sit at tables. (There are six, one table for each of the traits.) I call these groupings “guilds”; there would be 3 guilds per team. The team would get 5 bonus OP for each of its guilds that had a 100% turn in rate.
  • Papers that were shared would earn OP based on the trait score. I chose a multiplier of 2 to increase the total OP possible. If one week the traits being assessed were Ideas and Organization, and a paper earned 6s on both rubrics, then that would score 24 OP.

Student Brainstorming

  • To encourage students to choose different authors’ papers each week, instead of relying on one adept student, a bonus of 3 OC would be added if the paper a team selected was by someone who never had a paper selected before. (Varying which traits would be assessed also helped to allow students with different strengths to have a chance to shine.)
  • I knew I’d want to throw in some “game stuff” that could influence the team’s total OP. What do athletes make use of to enhance their scores? I created tickets (symbolizing crowds to cheer the athletes on), virtual foods, training and team equipment, trainers, etc. Some of these elements gave a specific number of OP, some deducted OP from the opposing team, and some added increases by a set percentage. Some of these could be purchased using a form of Kingdom currency, “Explorer Credits,” and others would be given as rewards for participation in class, success in accumulating XP, etc.

Here is the scoring form I used for each competition:

Score Form

Day One might forgo the minilesson or activity. Instead, I’d use that time to introduce the week’s writing topic, as well as reveal which two traits would be assessed. Usually the Kingdom News would include a summary of the prior week’s events, and discuss the teams’ overall standings in the trimester-long competition:

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Day Four was taken up with the competition. At my school, we have a rotating block schedule, and I see each of my five classes four times over the course of an ordinary week. Every day but Day Four would generally include the usual ELA class elements: vocabulary work, a minilesson and/or assessment, and perhaps a brief activity before a “work session” which usually was about 20 minutes.

Another Topic Choice

Another Topic Choice

The Schedule

In short, what all these rules boil down to: If students do their writing on a given week, they get XP. If their tablemates all do their writing, they get more—an incentive to keep each other on task. If their entire team does all their writing, they get more still. And the better the quality of the piece they choose to share, the more XP they each get.

You’ll note that I gave a nominal amount of XP to the student who read the paper aloud, and that the final XP released would be the OP earned plus a bonus: The winning team gets OP + 15 XP, and the second place team gets OP + 5. In this way, points could be earned not only by doing well, but also through participation–for example, reading aloud.

I would “check-in” contestants’ papers, using a special hole-punch to mark them as received, and noting each guilds’ level of completion. I’d call for stadium tickets.

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Each guild would read the papers their members wrote and choose what they thought was the strongest contender, and then teammates would convene to choose the best of the three finalists. Each team would have a turn, in which the student-selected “best” would be read, and I would assess each orally (and make note of the scores onto the sheet) after hearing each.

This process just about always filled the block. If it ran short, I might fill in with a minilesson or announce the next week’s topic & traits early, and move the kids into a work session.

As detailed as all this is, I have glossed over certain elements of the game, but this gives you a sense of how the Olympics work. All in all, the design took perhaps 16 hours, spread out over a few days.


The Olympics returned in the first trimester of this school year with only minor changes. The biggest change was in the “fiction vs. non-fiction” element. I wondered if the game would work without any such restriction, and so I removed it to find out. As I guessed, most of the students chose to write fiction for the competitions. I compensated for the non-fiction Olympic deficiency by making most of the optional “quests”—specific assignments that students can take on to earn extra XP—non-fictional. This worked well for the higher achievers, but for the students who struggle getting work done, it reduced their non-fiction output. I would restore the game to the original rule next time.The second trimester of this school year, I tried a variation I called the Triathlon. It required the teams to

  1. choose a multigenre topic,
  2. research it,
  3. write about that topic in three different ways—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—over six weeks (thus “Triathlon”), and then
  4. create a website that shared the best of their writings.

This was specifically done in an effort to target as many of the new Common Core standards as possible. The results were mixed; although the final products were in most cases impressive. To see samples of student work, go to the following example site: http://grimsvotnteam.weebly.com/

More Topic Choices

More Topic Choices

Some Conclusions

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: You

If you do try something, don’t be afraid to tell the students straight out that you are piloting something new, and ask them for advice. Some of the best tweaks to my games’ rules have come from students—after all, many of them ARE gamers, and this is their turf!

And don’t think you need a thorough understanding of game theory to create a more complex game. Think of the games that you’ve played, and borrow ideas and rules from them. I am not much of a gamer, myself, but my passing acquaintance with classic text-based computer games like Zork and the online Kingdom of Loathing [link: www.kingdomofloathing.com] have given me scores of ideas.

Is gamifying right for you? If your gut reaction is intrigue, then it may be. You don’t have to do anything as complex as I. Start small. You could create a simple game-based unit that runs for a week or two. It doesn’t have to be deeply rooted in a mythological storyline, and it doesn’t have to make use of metaphor and symbolism. After all–tic tac toe is a game, and its rules are simple, it has no deeper meaning, and there’s certainly no plot. Try doing a unit with cumulative points instead of averaged points. Try having a list of possible assignments instead of a single one that everyone must do.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Me

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!


Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol


Larry Graykin, M.Ed., teaches English language arts at Barrington Middle School in Barrington, New Hampshire. He maintains several ed-related sites, including commoncorecriticisms.wikispaces.com (a compilation of links to articles and videos critical of deleterious educational reforms) and attitudematters.wikispaces.com (about the importance of kindness). You can find him on Twitter at @L_Graykin. Recently, Barry Lane suggested he write a book about Diddorol and classroom game overlays; it is hard to say no to one’s friend, mentor, and guru…. Visitors are always welcome in Diddorol! To arrange a visit, email: LGraykin@sau74.org

Or visit virtually, online at www.diddorol.com.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Note: Videos showing the magic of Diddorol are available, and we look forward to providing a link, pending permission from the participating students.

Next time on Gurus, I’ll be writing about my adventures down under–specifically, how writers choose writing worthy moments, especially when they have many to choose from. Meantime, thank you, as always for stopping by. Please come often and bring friends. We appreciate your company!

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.



by Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks

Conclusions & Conventions

FEATURE 7: Conclusions

In writing, only one thing trumps a good lead, and that is a killer conclusion—Ahab going down with the ship, or Atticus Finch, waiting for Jem to wake up in the morning, or this famous, often quoted one-liner:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Now that’s satisfying—mostly because we’ve waited so long to hear Rhett utter those words. But imagine if Margaret Mitchell, in a moment of insanity, had written, “And then Scarlett woke up—and it was all a dream!” Cancel those movie rights. Hell hath no fury like a reader lacking resolution.

According to the CCSS, endings need to wrap things up without offending readers’ sense of logic. Surprises are fine—but lunacy doesn’t work.

 the tale of despereaux

Happily ever after? Not always . . .

Writers have to use their heads. In The Tale of Despereaux (2003) by Kate DiCamillo, for example, the author addresses the “happily ever after” question head on, assuring us that her ending will not be the ultimate cliché we expect from fables and fairy tales:

And what of Despereaux? Did he live happily ever after? Well, he did not marry the princess, if that’s what you mean by happily ever after. Even in a world as strange as this one, a mouse and a princess cannot marry.

But reader, they can be friends.

And they were. Together they had many adventures. Those adventures, however, are another story, and this story, I’m afraid, must now draw to a close. (267)

 Notice the silver lining amidst all that disappointment. The good, the bad, and . . . well, you know. That’s one kind of ending. What other sorts are there?

  1. Coming full circle—In this sort of ending, the writer finds a way to tie the ending to the beginning. Readers love this. (For a masterful example of this concept, check out Barry Lane’s very funny book The Tortoise and the Hare . . . continued.)
  2. End of the journey—This satisfying sort of conclusion marks the end of a search, the solution to a problem, the solving of a mystery, or something similar. Margaret Mitchell’s fitting ending to her Civil War love story is one example.
  3. The prediction—Forecasting what will (or could) happen can be a powerful way to close an informational piece or argument because readers love looking into the crystal ball.
  4. The solution—The writer poses a problem early on, and then offers one or more solutions, usually wrapping up with the best.
  5. The fitting quotation—A quotation that perfectly encapsulates the writer’s message or argument can provide a highly provocative, memorable ending.
  6. The epilogue—It might be fun to see Scout (from To Kill a Mockingbird), Huckleberry Finn, or Scarlett O’Hara twenty years down the road, embarking on new adventures or (in some cases) suffering the consequences of unfortunate choices.

Deadliest of them all

A good ending follows from and builds upon what has come before—but it does not repeat. The deadliest ending of them all is the one that takes us back over the trail just traveled. You know how it goes. It begins with those dreaded words In conclusion . . . And the author goes on (relentlessly) to list the three main points or arguments just made. Enough! We get it. Formula writers are hard to stop.

Instead of releasing energy like a leaky balloon, informational or argumentative endings should build in momentum until they explode with a mind blowing revelation or irrefutable last line. They should leave us saying, Of course! Why did I not see this before??!!

In “Room 9, Car 1430” (1985), author Ursula K. LeGuin argues that we should love trains more than airplanes because they allow us to travel—well, reflectively. To gaze out the window at beautiful scenery, to ride in comfort with space for our legs and reading materials, to eat at tables with linens and flowers “instead of being strapped into a seat with a plastic latter of stuff slapped down in front of you, like a kid in a high chair.” I’m already convinced, but she’s just getting started . . .

Writing as she crosses the Cascades, LeGuin delineates the advantages of train travel—all the while acknowledging that sometimes (as when heading to a funeral) speed is of the essence. You have to give opposing voices their due. She saves her strongest argument for last, bringing everything together with these spirited lines: “The plane, with its tremendous inefficiency as a passenger vehicle, is the anachronism. It is out of date. An administration seeking a sound economy would (like Japan and most European countries) be refunding its passenger train system, enlarging and improving it. Not wrecking it through underfunding and then, like a spoiled kid with a toy he doesn’t understand, trashing it.”

You feel the energy building in LeGuin’s argument, like a train charging down the track. She can’t inflame us like that and then tack on this limp ending: “So in conclusion then, the three advantages of train travel . . .” That’s how arguments are lost. And this is a writer who has never set out to lose an argument. If formula were a dragon, she would be St. George.


More endings to avoid at all costs

One good revision tip is to occasionally begin revising in the middle—instead of automatically starting with the first sentence you write. Revision is hard work, and if you begin to tire halfway through, the ending will always suffer. Begin in the middle, though, and you’ll still have enough steam left at the end to avoid easy-out endings like these:

  • And then I woke up and it was all a dream.
  • There’s more to tell, but that’s all I have time for right now.
  • I hope you enjoyed my story (paper, essay, etc.) and learned a lot.
  • So, cats or dogs—there are good things about both! Which one would YOU choose?
  • More research needs to be done in this vital area.
  • Perhaps the future will reveal answers to these important questions.
  • This remains a source of continual mystery for mankind.

Favorites from literature One of the best ways to learn how to write a good ending is to study what other writers have done. Become a collector and encourage students to do the same. Here are just a handful of my favorites. As you read through them, you might ask yourself what these (or favorites of your own) have in common. Is it something about the writing itself? Or is it the feelings they conjure up within you, the reader?

  • The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.    ~George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.      ~Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • After Seabiscuit was buried, the old owner planted an oak sapling over him. Howard, a vigorously public man, made his last gesture to his horse a private one. He told only his sons the location of the grave and let the oak stand as the only marker. Somewhere in the high country that once was Ridgewood, the tree lives on, watching over the bones of Howard’s beloved Seabiscuit.    ~Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit
  • He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.      ~George Orwell, 1984
  • However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.     ~Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  •  At the moment, the pig palace stands empty. People ask, “Will you get another pig?” This I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.     ~Sy Montgomery, The Good, Good Pig
  •  Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.      ~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  •  We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.     ~Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style
  •  And what dance would you do if you were a seahorse? Not just any dance. Heads together, tails entwined, you would dance the tango.     ~Twig C. George, Seahorses
  •  I buried her with her halter and two of the three ribbons she had won. Later that night I went back to her grave—“Ginweed,” I said, “we had a heck of a good time together,” and I walked away from the grassless patch of earth.   ~8th grade student, writing about the 4-H calf he had raised
  •  Fox and I still visit the pond, but it’ll never be like them three years when she was mine.    ~8th grade student, writing about his dog and the pond they both loved

Questions to ask

Following are some questions for writers to ask as they write a conclusion:

  • What’s the most burning question in readers’ minds right now?
  • Is there one significant detail I haven’t shared yet?
  • What’s the irrefutable clincher to this argument?
  • What do readers think will happen—and should that happen, or should I surprise them?
  • What do I want readers to leave thinking about?
  • What do I want readers to believe after reading this?
  • What’s the most obvious ending—and how can I avoid it?
  • Should I have stopped a paragraph—or a whole page—ago?

TEACHING Conclusions

Here are six things you can do to help students write strong endings of their own:

  1. Brainstorm endings to avoid. Then I woke up and it was all a dream seems an obvious cliché to teachers, but students use it all the time. Make a list of “easy out” endings, the ones writers use when they run out of time, energy, or patience. Keep the list posted as a reminder not to get lazy at the end; the conclusion is the writer’s best chance to make a powerful statement.
  2. Collect endings that work. In this post, I’m sharing only a handful. You and your students can collect dozens more. Look beyond books. Good endings come in periodicals, newspapers—even ads. Expand your discussion to talk about TV or film endings, too. (Remember the Breaking Bad finale?) Students who are visual appreciate connecting with endings they can see and hear, not just take in through words.
  3. What makes good endings work? Talk about this with students. Good endings have things in common: They make us (as readers) reflect or remember, suggest new possibilities, strengthen a conclusion the writer hopes we’ve reached (or will reach), give us something to ponder, answer a pressing question, satisfy curiosity, shock or surprise us—and more. Discuss the role of a good ending, and keep this discussion going as you add to your collection of favorites.
  4. Have a bad endings contest. Students love this. Choose a well-known story—it can be anything from a fable or fairy tale to a popular film or television show. Have students rewrite the ending in a way that definitely does NOT work—and talk about why. Maybe the wicked stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” opens a counseling service. Maybe Walter White pens the pilot for a sitcom.
  5. Revise. Provide students with an unfinished story, informational piece, or argument (just chop off the final paragraph or two—whatever amount of text you think constitutes the ending). You can use anything from a news story to a short story, op ed piece, or essay. Then follow these steps: (1) Provide students with the story/article minus the ending. (2) Discuss expectations—how do they think it will end, might end, should end? (3) Have students write an ending that they believe fits, and finally, (4) Provide the actual ending and do a critique—does it work? Why or why not? How does it compare with what students wrote?
  6. Follow some good advice. Some of the best advice on endings EVER comes from Roy Peter Clark in his excellent (highly recommended!) book Writing Tools (2006, 192). It is, fittingly, the conclusion to his chapter/essay titled “Write toward an ending.” He says, “I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on like a Rachmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal ballad. Don’t bury your ending. Put your hand over the last paragraph. Ask yourself, ‘What would happen if this ended here?’ Move up another paragraph and ask the same question until you find the natural stopping place.”

writing tools

FEATURE 8: Conventions—and Presentation

On 9/16/14 (Stop the Sea of Red Ink!), I wrote extensively about teaching conventions. Check that post for many details on teaching students to be strong editors.

Meanwhile, let’s look briefly at CCSS expectations for conventions, and then close with some ideas for teaching both conventions and presentation.

What does the CCSS demand?

The CCSS expectations relating to conventions are somewhat lacking in detail—presumably to grant teachers freedom to teach conventions as they see fit. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Correct spelling
  • Correct use of punctuation
  • Correct use of pronouns
  • Correct use of intensive pronouns (myself, herself, etc.)
  • No unnecessary shifts in number or person
  • No vague pronoun references
  • Recognition and avoidance of non-standard usage

At upper levels, especially grades 11 and 12, they add the following:

  • Understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and can be contested.
  • Skill in using relevant resources, such as a thesaurus or dictionary.
  • Skill in varying sentence patterns to increase readability and improve style.

Notes on these last three bullets

These last three bullets—those pertaining to upper grade students—are particularly interesting. The first two call for thinking skills and application of those skills, things that can only be measured through elaborately and carefully designed performance assessment. (This has serious, not-to-be-ignored implications for testing.) The third one has nothing to do with conventions—though as I’ll point out, it is vital just the same.

 Bullet 1: I cheered when I read about the understanding of conventional evolution. This, to my mind, is more significant than all the other conventions-related standards combined. It is, however, difficult to imagine how this would be measured—certainly not through multiple choice, fill-in, short answer, or true and false questions: e.g., True or false: Language is evolving.  No—typical assessment strategies won’t work here. We need observation of behavior over time by highly skilled, qualified persons who are sensitive to the ways in which language shifts—and who can recognize the signs of change in writing. Such assessment is not only monumentally difficult, but poses potential hazards for young writers even when well done. What if their writing reflects no homage to recent fluctuations? Does that mean it’s below standard? On the other hand, if a student begins sentences with And, favors fragments, uses double punctuation (?!),or uses words like hashtag, selfie, crowdfunding, and wackadoo, is this a sign he/she is linguistically evolved? And what of the person scoring this student’s work? How does he/she feel about our ever evolving language? Not everyone is a fan of change.

We must be careful to distinguish between standards, those things we have a right to expect and sufficient skill to assess—and goals or wishes, things we hope for, measurable or not. Despite this complex and treacherous web we’ve woven for ourselves, I applaud the CCSS for encouraging students to recognize language as vital and in flux. As Patricia T. O’Conner says in her engaging book Woe Is I, the “quirks, the surprises, the ever-changing nature of English—these are the differences between a living language and a dead one.”

Bullet 2: Again—effective use of resources is an admirable goal, but one difficult to assess with any validity under timed or controlled conditions. Writers who make extensive and efficient use of resources under normal writing conditions may not have the time or opportunity, under the constraints typical of most writing assessments, to show what they can do when unfettered. Nevertheless, quality writing and research demand that students become proficient with a wide range of resources, from print to Internet. This means that use of resources must be taught, even if not assessed.

Bullet 3: Varied sentence patterns: Well—music to my ears. Fans of 6-trait writing will recognize this description as belonging to our old friend Sentence Fluency, aka Trait #5. You might have thought this trait was missing from the CCSS, but it was only hiding out among the conventions. Fluency does indeed enhance both clarity and style—and can surely be assessed, as we have shown for 30 years now. Dust off your old 6-trait writing guide (or better yet, 6th edition of Creating Writers) for numerous ideas on how to teach this important trait.

CW6 Cover

Just how important IS fluency? A study conducted by the Oregon Department of Education in the 1980s showed that in fact, sentence fluency was the most important single indicator of how professional readers would score a paper. Does that surprise you? Well—it surprised me. I would have voted for voice or conventions. But, no. As it turns out, one of the best ways to entertain, educate, or convince readers is to give them sentences that

  • Vary in style
  • Vary in length
  • Begin with meaningful transitional words or phrases
  • Flow smoothly and rhythmically, inviting oral reading

Good to know. (Important to teach.)

The MOST Common Conventional Errors

You cannot teach everything relating to conventions. You couldn’t even if you had years to prepare, so be smart. Focus on the trouble spots. Following are 15 of the most common errors students (and in fact, pretty much all writers) make. If your students can avoid these, they’ll have a distinct advantage in any assessment:

  • Incorrect double pronoun: Example: Did anyone leave their books behind? Instead, write: Did anyone leave his or her books behind? English, unfortunately, has no universal pronoun to replace their—and these days, “his books” is considered sexist. Who knows? Their—once acceptable—may make a comeback, but it’s not there yet, so it’s best avoided as a replacement for “his or her.”
  • Incorrect pronoun as a sentence subject: Example: Me and him have been friends forever. Instead, write: He and I have been friends forever. You wouldn’t say Me has been his friend forever or Him has been my friend forever, so Me and him makes no sense.
  • Use of good instead of well: Example: You did good, kid! Instead, write: You did well. “You did good” is popular usage these days, but it is not standard and is unacceptable in any formal context—such as a CCSS writing assessment.
  • Incorrect use of intensive or reflective pronouns (the “selfie” gang): Such pronouns can be used reflectively: Louise prepared herself for the relatives. Or they can be used intensively: Louise herself finished off the spaghetti. They should not be used to replace other pronouns, such as I or me, in a vain attempt to make a sentence more elegant. Examples: NOT Jack and myself loved the movie, BUT Jack and I loved the movie. NOT It’s a party for Bill and myself, BUT It’s a party for Bill and me.
  • Vague pronoun reference: Example: Just before Wiley pounced on Catfish, he let out a mighty roar. Who let out the mighty roar? Wiley or Catfish? Instead, write one of the following: Just before pouncing on Catfish, Wiley let out a mighty roar. OR, Just before Wiley pounced on him, Catfish let out a mighty roar.
  • Missing commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause: This one befuddles everyone (mostly thanks to excessively formal terminology), but it’s really simple. Instead of “nonrestrictive,” think “nonessential.” In other words, it’s a clause that adds an interesting tidbit of information, but it isn’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence. When that’s the case, it should be set off by commas. Otherwise, it should not. Consider the difference between these two sentences: 1) The firefighter who rescued the child was given a medal. 2) The firefighter, who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, was given a medal. The expression who rescued the child is restrictive; it is essential to the full meaning of the sentence because presumably, the rescue was the reason he was awarded the medal. The expression who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday is incidental, not essential to the meaning of the sentence—but more of an “oh by the way” comment. Therefore, it requires commas. Commas used in this way are a sort of “parentheses light.”
  • Comma splice: A splice puts two things—like strips of film—together. Unfortunately, commas do not perform this task well, and a comma cannot join two sentences (independent clauses). Example: Jim hated dogs they always seemed to bite him. Instead, write: Jim hated dogs; they always seemed to bite him. OR Jim hated dogs. They always seemed to bite him. OR Because they always seemed to bite him, Jim hated dogs.
  • Confusion of it’s and its: Here’s another easy one that pops up all the time. Remember it this way: it’s (with the apostrophe) is a contraction. All the time. No exceptions. It can stand for it is or it has: It’s raining. OR, It’s been days since we talked! Unless you mean “it is” or “it has,” write its: NOT Its too late for apologies, BUT It’s too late for apologies. NOT A turtle never sleeps on it’s back, BUT A turtle never sleeps on its back.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in tense: Moving suddenly from past to present or the reverse can create confusion for readers. Tenses should remain constant unless there’s a logical reason for the shift. Example: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she starts laughing. Instead, write: Elaine was watching TV, and suddenly, she started laughing. Example: I am running down the path when I spotted a coyote. Instead, write: I am running down the path when I spot a coyote. OR, I was running down the path when I spotted a coyote.
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate shift in person: This often comes from an almost obsessive avoidance of the pronoun “I,” as if it’s rude to refer to one’s own feelings or thoughts, and more polite to shift the attention to you. The resulting sentences, though, can be awkward. Example: I was almost to the finish line when you could feel your legs cramping. Why would I get cramps when YOU are the one running? This makes no sense. Instead, write: I was almost to the finish line when I could feel my legs cramping. Example: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and you couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it. Instead, write: We stared at the Eiffel Tower, and we couldn’t help wondering how long it took to build it.
  • Inappropriate tense: For some reason, this error has become widespread in novels. Doesn’t anyone use past perfect anymore? Example: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian jumped. This doesn’t work because Ian has already jumped by the time Jill gets there; one thing happens before the other, and the verb tenses need to show this. Instead, write: By the time Jill reached the bungee site, Ian had jumped. Example: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty ate it. This sounds as if she ate it right in front of him—it’s not likely that’s what the writer means. Instead, write: John wanted to put candles on the cake, but Betty had eaten it. She’s not sadistic; she just has the munchies.
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement: Several things can trigger this mistake. One is beginning a sentence with “There.” Example: There is many reasons I struggle with geography. For some reason, “is” often feels right following “There.” But in this case, the plural “reasons” calls for a plural verb, so write: There are many reasons I struggle with geography. Another culprit is a complex subject. Example: The box of sausages are packed tightly. It’s box, not sausages, that is the sentence subject. Instead, write: The box of sausages is packed tightly. Similarly, compound sentence subjects can cause confusion—especially if they are separated by a few words. Example: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus is the main attraction at the aquarium. Despite the wordiness, the simple subject is still seahorses and octopus, a plural. Instead, write: The seahorses and the exceptionally intelligent and capricious octopus are the main attractions at the aquarium.
  • Wrong verb form following the word “or”: When a subject includes the word “or,” the verb matches the word following “or.” Example: Brussels sprouts or asparagus are on the menu tonight. Instead, write: Brussels sprouts or asparagus is on the menu tonight. Example: Ben or Rudy are scheduled to sing tonight. Since Rudy (the subject following or) is singular, you want to write this instead: Ben or Rudy is scheduled to sing tonight. (By the way, do not look for your grammar checker to catch this one. Most won’t!)
  • Misplaced or dangling modifiers: Misplaced modifiers are great for comic relief, but they can create confusion. Example: We saw the dolphins leaping and diving through our binoculars. How Disney! Instead, write: Through our binoculars, we saw the dolphins leaping and diving. Example: After drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult. Hold on. Is the snow drifting—or are we drifting? Instead, write: After drifting down for hours, the snow would make the drive difficult. OR, After it had been drifting down for hours, we knew snow would make the drive difficult.
  • Confusion of there, they’re, and their: This is an easy mistake to make, even for editors. After all, the words sound identical. The first is an adverb, usually signifying place (There it is!) or existence (There’s an old saying). The second is a contraction, short for they are: They’re here! And the last is a possessive: It’s their idea, not mine.

10 Things You Can Do to Teach Conventions Effectively

  1. Go through your students’ papers quickly, just skimming for recurring errors. Don’t correct anything. Instead, make a list of the 10 to 20 most frequently occurring errors. Then focus on those in your instruction. It’s likely that many of the 15 common errors listed above will appear on your list, too.
  2. Resist the urge to correct students’ writing line by line. It does almost no good whatsoever, and you’ll waste valuable time you could spend hunting through literature for good examples of usage or punctuation to share with students. This doesn’t mean you should ignore errors altogether. Instead . . .
  3. Do any of the following: 1) Pull an occasional example (anonymously, of course) from a student paper and ask the class to describe and correct it. Team editing feels SO much safer and more manageable than individual editing. 2) Within individual student papers, mark no more than one or two errors at a time, thinking of this as coaching more than editing. Most students will not internalize more than one editorial correction at a time anyway, so hard as it may be, put the pen down. And 3) Work on conventions—briefly!—in one-on-one conferences. You might ask a student to edit a sentence or a short paragraph with your assistance and support (NOT watching while you do it—you already know how to edit). Base the length of the task on the student’s skill level, and don’t demand perfection. The goal is improvement, and every error spotted merits approval and applause. Instead of punishing errors, reward editing.
  4. If students plan to publish a piece formally, require editing—but allow help. Students should be able to turn to partners, small groups, resource books and the computer for assistance—along with you, of course! And they should be given time, plenty of it.
  5. To teach punctuation, try removing it from a passage. Ask students to edit the passage, filling in what’s missing. This is much more difficult than you might think—but it forces students to use their understanding of how punctuation works rather than relying on hit-and-miss memorization of rules. Give this one a try yourself (I’ll post the author’s original at the end). Notice that I have provided additional space between lines and have included NO capital letters because that makes it too easy to tell where sentences begin and end. You need to use logic—and (here’s a tip to give students), it’s easier if you read aloud:

within hours the log erupts into flames by the next morning the fire has consumed a couple of acres

of forest then dry winds spring up whipping the flames out of control firefighters can do nothing as they

watch the inferno devours hundreds then thousands of acres the fire rages for days then weeks it reduces

green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal thick smoke chokes local communities ash falls on cities and

towns a thousand miles away

6. Make sure students join you in the hunt—for errors or for good examples of conventional correctness or change. Discuss them—and sometimes post them for easy reference.

7. Share your own writing and asking for help any time you are working on a piece, no matter how short.

8. Have students routinely edit publications from your school (They’ll find more mistakes than you think).

9. Provide (and asking students to provide) real-world examples of sentences that need editorial help. Here are some I collected just in the last week—and there were many more, but I neglected to write all of them down. All of these are from adult writers and speakers, some of them newscasters or government figures:

  • Me and him haven’t agreed on a single vote.
  • That was Charlie and my’s house for five years. (If you can come up with a way to make this structure more awkward, I’d like to hear it.)
  • I’d do it this way if I was you. (But since I isn’t, I won’t.)
  • Him and myself really loved that film. (So—him loved the film. And yourself loved it, too.)
  • There was way less people at the mall than expected. (Two problems here. Can you spot both?)
  • The team played so good on Sunday!

woe is I   deluxe transitive vampire  eats shoots and leaves

Tip 10:

Have some good resource books at the ready. I particularly like Woe Is I by Patricia T. OConner, an excellent resource on current grammar—highly readable. If you’re looking for a quick guide to grammatical terminology that most definitely won’t put you to sleep, check out The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This is a writer who truly appreciates grammar and has a delightful time teaching it to the rest of us—her book is anything but tedious. Same goes for Lynne Truss’s now classic book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Speaking of classics . . . If you’d like a stellar book to use in teaching grammar, usage, and punctuation to students, look no further than Jeff Anderson’s brilliant Mechanically Inclined. Once you begin reading (and using) this book with your students, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

mechanically inclined


Presentation is the partner of conventions. Basically, it’s packaging—everything from the cover (if a document has one) to the page size, use of color, graphics, inclusion of features like a table of contents or index, choice of fonts, and more.

I don’t advocate scoring or assessing presentation because it’s an element of design. People give awards—like the Caldecott—for artistic achievement, but recognition of that kind of excellence is a special form of assessment that requires a specialist’s eye and background. If you have designed publications yourself, that’s different. But it’s still important to recognize that designing documents in a classroom (or even a state-of-the-art home office) is one heck of a lot different from working at a publishing house with incredible resources at your fingertips.

I do, however, believe in teaching elements of design or presentation because when students take pride in how a document looks, that may spark additional attention to other areas, such as research, wording, or organizational structure. Further, good presentation makes documents easier to read—and readability makes readers feel good.

Word Processing Is Essential

Instruction in presentation works best, of course, if students are word processing documents. If they are hand writing their text, then presentation tends to focus on legibility. Be careful with this. Over-attention to handwriting leaves students with the unfortunate impression that presentation is mostly about neatness, and that’s like thinking that good parenting is mostly about dusting. Handwriting has nothing whatsoever to do with the logical or inventive thinking that marks strong writing. Do I think handwriting should be taught? Yes. Oh yes, I do. I am all for people writing legibly. But pretending that writing legibly is the same as thinking logically is misleading and frankly, irritating.

So let’s begin with a caveat: Everything in this section is intended for computer generated print. It presumes that the writer has control over things like font selection and size or insertion of illustrations.

Here are six very simple things you can teach to dramatically improve presentation. Every one of these can be taught through example—and best of all, you can have students find the examples themselves:

  1.  Encourage paragraphing. I am looking now at a text I like very much, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. It’s riveting—if you’re into evolution. But the very first time I opened it, I put it right back down, thinking, “Maybe later.” The text is so dense. Tiny letters fill every page. True, there are illustrations, but not enough to give tired reader’s eyes a rest. And margins are minimalized. I understand why. The book runs over 600 pages. Heck, the index alone runs 30. The editor was probably going insane trying to hold it to that length. But I’m reading it a chapter at a time so it doesn’t wear me out—and I find myself longing for white space the way some people crave chocolate. An easy way to create white space is to include more paragraphs—and even create additional space between them. Space is restful. We could use more of it. (Chocolate too. Just saying.)
  2. Help students choose fonts with care. Fonts should be readable. If students want to experiment with fonts, headings or subheadings are a good place to get fancy. Otherwise, stick with plain and simple—and make it large enough for the average person to read without magnification. On the other hand, TOO BIG isn’t good, either. Extremely large print is nearly as difficult to read as small print. The other thing to look out for is the circus effect—more than two fonts on a page. This creates a busy look that might work for a poster or greeting card, but does not create the right impression for a report, editorial, or other serious document. A good way to teach font selection is by having students peruse publications of many kinds and choose their top five fonts. (Not everyone in the class will agree on this, of course.) Then get specific about the qualities that aid readability or visual appeal. Talk about when/why it’s OK to get more creative (e.g., for a picture book cover or birth announcement). Most publications these days identify the fonts used, making this discussion fun and easy.
  3. Teach the art of listing. Lists are very hard to read in paragraph form. See Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, pages 2-3, for an eloquent example of an exception to this rule. Usually, a list is understood and absorbed much more quickly (and thoroughly) if it’s numbered (like the one you’re reading now) or bulleted. Items on a list can be expanded later. For example, a writer might quickly document three consequences of drought in a bulleted list—then go on to expand each of the three. This brings us to another easy-to-teach feature of presentation . . .
  4. Teach subheadings. They’re enormously helpful. If I could give an award for best text feature, I’d give it to the humble sub-head. It’s a form of transition—only compact and enormously revealing. This is what this section is all about, it tells us. What could be more helpful than that? It not only identifies what’s coming up, like a good road sign, but also makes it easy for us, as readers, to go back later and check something or re-read. Sub-heads are usually bold-faced or written in a larger or different font, or sometimes all three. They need to stand out.
  5. Encourage illustrations. Some. In the right spots. Again, ask students to teach themselves how this works by looking at examples. Sometimes a diagram of a shark or map of Central America is just the thing. But too many illustrations quickly turn into clutter. An illustration—by which I mean a drawing, photograph, chart, map, graph, cartoon, or any similar insertion—should be immediately and obviously helpful. It should answer a question (or questions) in the reader’s mind. If it feels more like an assignment—Here, memorize this—it’s overkill, and it’s better to omit it.
  6. Encourage appreciation of great covers. Or other artistic displays, for that matter. You might have a contest in which students nominate and vote for favorite book covers, internal illustrations, newspaper layout designs, brochure designs, posters, print advertisements, or any similar category of your choice.

Here’s the original from that punctuation activity. It’s from Sneed Collard’s wonderful new book, Fire Birds, just released (2015, p. 5). Notice how Collard’s careful use of commas makes this passage easy to read:

Within hours, the log erupts into flames. By the next morning, the fire has consumed a couple of acres of forest. Then dry winds spring up, whipping the flames out of control. Firefighters can do nothing. As they watch, the inferno devours hundreds, then thousands of acres. The fire rages for days, then weeks. It reduces green mountain ridges and valleys to charcoal. Thick smoke chokes local communities. Ash falls on cities and towns a thousand miles away.

Look for a review of Fire Birds later in 2015.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

After the holiday break, I’ll review Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative, along with Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills while making important links to the six traits. Until then, have a wonderful holiday.

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.



For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding posts, please check out . . .

  • 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. 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.


Do you teach writing? If so, you probably already know what you’re doing on that first day back in the classroom, right? But just in case, we have some suggestions.

First off, how about a little free writing? Even five minutes of writing whatever comes into your head can improve concentration and focus, create a reflective frame of mind (something all writers need), prepare students to think on a deeper level, and provide additional writing practice. Plus—and this is BIG—it can occur in any class, not just English or language arts. You do NOT need to grade or (heaven forbid) correct what students write during this time. Take it easy. Write with students—and every now and then, share a selected entry aloud. Or, invite students to share their own self-selected entries (on occasion) in small groups or with the class. Journals need to be basically private (to encourage the most honest writing), so sharing should be voluntary, fun, brief, and based on entries students feel comfortable sharing aloud. For more information on what this little five-minute activity can do for your writers, check out the following article, cited in Marshall Memo 546, August 4, 2014:

“The Obvious Benefits of In-Class Writing Assignments” by David Gooblar in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2014 (Vol. LX, #41, p. A31),

That’s not our only suggestion! Here are 6 more. And by the way, you don’t have to do these things just on Day 1—you can do them any time (and more than once)!

1. Brainstorm Topics. What’s the number one question students ask any visiting writer? You’ve got it: Where do you get your ideas? The truth is (and almost every writer will tell you this), ideas come to you right out of life itself. Every experience or observation has a built-in story or topic to research—or potential argument to be made. And you don’t need to cruise the Mediterranean or complete Mission Impossible to find a writing-worthy topic. Students will see this is so if you model some writing ideas of your own. Make a list and share it with students. Three to five topics are plenty, and keep them modest so students can see how topics arise from everyday life. Here’s my list:
• Best books of the past summer
• The art of xeriscaping (growing plants with minimal water)
• Attracting owls to your yard
• Ups and downs of a low-carb diet
• Why TV is now better than the movies
• Family reunions: a good idea?
• Explosion in the local frog population
• Riding horses on the beach

I can take any one of these topics and craft a story, informational piece (with some research, of course), or argument. And this is a good thing to model, too. Take xeriscaping. Here are three different spins on this one topic:

Narrative: My experience trying to grow Russian Sage (a plant most people find easy—but I don’t!)
Informational: How to transform your yard into a xeriscape garden
Argument: Why xeriscaping is an ecological necessity in a time of depleted water resources

2. Read aloud. This past May, we lost one of Earth’s great souls—Maya Angelou. Her work accompanied me on virtually every workshop I ever did. Her words were inevitably lyrical and strikingly wise (for a collection of her most quotable moments, check out BrainyQuote). Shortly after her death, I saw a brief interview from many years ago, re-run on CBS. She spoke of a visit to a friend’s house when she (Maya) was around seven. The woman’s house was filled with books, and she took one down from the shelf to read aloud to Marguerite (as Maya was then called). It was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. As she remembered this episode during the interview, Maya imitated the dramatic, measured cadence of the woman’s voice: “It was . . . the best of times . . . It was . . . the worst of times . . .” Maya recalled her pronouncing each word with precise articulation and dramatic resonance. Even as a small child, Maya recognized the words (she was an avid reader, familiar with Dickens)—and indeed recognized the book, for she had it in her own home. But she recalled thinking, “I didn’t know it sounded like that.” Oral reading has an impact on listeners of all ages. Pick something you love and plan to share it with your students. And don’t—seriously, don’t—feel compelled to read the whole piece unless it’s short: a picture book, essay, or poem, for instance. Choose a portion you can read in limited time. I say this only because if you bite off too much, you’ll always find a reason you can’t fit oral reading into your schedule. And oh, what your students will miss. This is the best way to teach voice—but in addition, you introduce students to ideas, words, and sentence rhythms they wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Extreme Life of the Sea
My hands-down favorite new book from this past summer was The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton University Press, 2014). It’s an informational text, written with the music of fine poetry. And if I were choosing a passage to read aloud, it would be this one, from the Prologue:

It’s dark and cold and very deep. A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) cruises through the ink, descending towards the floor of the world. He’s hunting: powerful muscles and hot blood collaborating to run down rare prey in the cold, oxygen-poor depths. Down and up, dive and ascent, each cycle punctuated with foul-smelling blowhole gasps at the surface. A long life and great bulk lend the bull patience, and he passes by trivial morsels in search of more substantial fare. His broad tail and heavy muscles produce a steady cruising speed. Tiny eyes little bigger than a cow’s peer through deepening blues, oriented to look down and not ahead. In the dark, that patience bears fruit: a mile down, the world’s biggest predator meets its most fearsome prey.

That prey is, of course, the giant squid, up to 55 feet long, equipped with (we soon learn) a sharp beak and claw-like hooks on the ends of its tentacles. It will be a fearsome battle—but I’ll save that passage for next time! These are the questions I would have for students:

• What do you picture as you listen to this passage?
• What do you feel?
• Is there a word or phrase that sticks in your mind?
• Who’s going to win the battle?

Reading the passage a second time makes questions like these much easier to answer. After your discussion, challenge students to come up with a read-aloud passage of their own (from any source), to share in, say, a week. (And yes, they should come up with questions to ask you and their classmates—that’s part of the fun.)

3. Introduce revision. Revision? Isn’t that kind of . . . well, big? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be very small and manageable. Your students will gain more from small, focused revision lessons than from starting out re-doing whole essays or narratives. This lesson shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The purpose is to introduce the concept of revision through one conquerable task.

In introducing revision, I like to start with something almost every reader understands intuitively: the lead. Good leads matter. They make us read on—or put the piece down and go on to something else. You can begin this lesson in any number of ways:

• Discuss the concept of revision. What things (besides writing) do we revise? Our hair, clothes, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Remodeling a house is a form of revision. So is restructuring a curriculum. Or modifying a road trip—or re-doing a menu for the family picnic. Examples of real-world revision are endless.
• Talk about what a lead is and does. Why do leads matter? Who can recall a lead that stuck in his or her mind?
• Have students open various books (fiction and nonfiction alike) and read the leads aloud (or read leads from news stories). Comment on which ones work best and why.
• Share some of your own favorite leads. (A few of my own favorites are found in the following books: A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, In a Sunburned Country, The Catcher in the Rye, Paperboy, Counting by 7s, Matilda, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, Running for My Life, Seahorses, Seabiscuit, Animal Dialogues, The Tarantula Scientist, Birdology, The Good, Good Pig, The Teacher’s Funeral.) Choose at least five to read aloud and ask students which one is their favorite—and why. This will expand your discussion of what makes a good lead.

Next, give students a lead that needs work. Write this yourself if you don’t have an anonymous example. Think of the leads you’re tired of: the “this paper will be about” or “I will explain” kinds of leads that set up a topic in a mechanical sort of way and strike a death blow to reader curiosity. Let’s say I’m writing a report on New Zealand and I begin this way:

New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean. It lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia. It has over four million residents and most of them live in cities, though some live on farms. It has volcanoes and mountains. It also has many, many sheep.

Are you still awake? You probably cannot imagine a much more tedious lead. But maybe you cannot imagine a better one either unless you know something about New Zealand. This is the important part. Even the most imaginative writers cannot write effectively on topics they know nothing about. So give students some information to work from. Copy a page from an encyclopedia or travel brochure/book so students can do some brief on-the-spot, in-class research. The text should run no more than a half-page to a page long. That’s plenty! Then have students work in pairs (much more fun) to write a lead for a travel book, a lead strong enough to get people to sign up for a tour. The team that gets the most people (class vote) to sign up wins the contest. (Wouldn’t it be GREAT if the prize could be an actual trip to New Zealand?)

After spending just five minutes skimming through The Rough Guide to New Zealand, I revised my lead to read this way:

Imagine a country where sheep outnumber people 40 to one. In New Zealand, an island country two-thirds the size of California, sheep are so plentiful they create their own traffic jams, often stranding motorists on windy back-country roads for hours. Oddly, tourists don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they’re too busy photographing the mountains, fjords, volcanoes, and incredible black or white sand beaches. Since the filming of “Lord of the Rings,” more people are flocking to New Zealand (no pun intended) than ever before in the country’s 800-year history, and this could be the year you’re one of them.

Are you ready to sign up? Ready or not, you likely agree it’s an improvement. The question is, why? Talk with students. Then have them share their own “before and after” examples to discuss.

4. Help students think like writers. What does this mean? Several things. First, writers are readers. There is simply no way to become a writer without reading. Make a list (with students) of the things you have all read in the past month. Don’t leave anything out, however humble. It’s easy to overlook things like post cards, ads, cookbooks, on-line reviews, or signs. Don’t. List them all. Talk about how important it is to read divergently and avidly, all the time. Poetry, drama, informational essays, journalistic stories, advertisements, warnings in medicine bottles—they’re all important, and they all have lessons to teach. Writers record bits and pieces from their reading regularly: favorite words and phrases, favorite sentences, chapter titles, names, anything. Writers are collectors (another reason a journal is vital).

Second, writers are observers. They are curious about everyone, everywhere, and everything. They’re never bored. Boredom isn’t allowed in the world of writing. They take in the tiniest details: the shape of a leaf, the speed with which a caterpillar moves, the colors in a plaid shirt or muddy bog, the feel of a spider crawling up your arm, the sound of a child’s voice or an old phonograph record, the smell of a dog’s breath or newly cut grass. The smaller the detail, the more important it is. Talk about ways to record these details so they’re not lost, so you can go back to the “well” and dip in.

Finally, writers write. Every day, if possible. They don’t necessarily write pages and pages, like Freddie Einsford Hill from My Fair Lady. But they do write—an email, a post card, a note to self, a journal entry, a short description of something seen or experienced, a brief review of a book or film, a recipe to share, a single line of dialogue for a novel-of-the-future. Horace said it best in 65 B.C.: “Never a day without a line.”

5. Assess a piece of writing. Almost nothing you can do as a writing teacher will prompt better discussions or deeper understanding of writing than this simple activity. Choose a piece of writing (I usually use a student paper, but you can use anything in print) to assess as a class. If your students know the six traits, you can have them use a student friendly rubric (5-point or 6-point). Check the book Creating Writers (6th edition) or one of our Write Traits Classroom Kits (2nd edition) for copies. Both resources also contain many student papers at all grade levels that you can assess and discuss with your students. Following is a legendary paper I’ve used in countless workshops and in many classrooms as well. It invites wide ranging comments on what constitutes good writing—and what this particular piece needs to make it stronger:

The Redwoods
Last year, we went on a vacation and we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and there was lots to do, so we were never bored.

My parents visited friends and took pictures for their friends back home. My brother and I swam and also hiked in the woods. When we got tired of that, we just ate and had a wonderful time.

It was exciting and fun to be together as a family and to do things together. I love my family, and this is a time that I will remember for a long time. I hope we will go back again next year for more fun and an even better time than we had this year.

If your students know the six traits, have them score the paper on one or more traits. I think the three most important to discuss in connection with “The Redwoods” are ideas, voice, and conventions. Most students (like teachers, for that matter) see big problems with ideas (no details!) and voice (this writer is pretty disengaged)—but agree that the conventions, while not very sophisticated, are fairly strong (at least there aren’t mistakes).

Here’s a quick way to “score” this or any paper without getting too hung up on numbers. Read the paper aloud. Then go through the traits and ask whether readers see/hear more strengths or problems in each trait. With “The Redwoods,” readers typically find conventions and organization to be the strongest traits, ideas and voice the weakest. The sentences are also sound, if not musical. Word choice is clear and functional, though not particularly original or striking.

I also like to ask students if they think the writer is male or female. Most say male—but that’s wrong. I ask the grade level of the writer, and almost no one gets this right. What do you think? The most common answer by far is grade 3, though guesses range from grade 1 through grade 8. On a rare occasion, someone guesses this is an adult—and ironically, that’s pretty close! In fact, it’s actually an eleventh grade girl. She was a student in my writing class at a community college some years ago. And by the way, she was a fine writer—as later pieces showed. I also always ask students to guess what they think the assignment was. What comes to your mind? You may be thinking this was the cliché “What did you do on your summer vacation?” assignment. But, no. Even back in the day, I like to think I was more imaginative than that. I had asked students to write about an experience in which the five senses played an important part. If you’ve ever visited the Redwoods, then you know that this student chose an outstanding topic. She just didn’t take time to develop it.

When you score a paper with students, keep in mind that the purpose is not to come up with the “right” score. There is no such thing. There are only human responses to writing. Even Shakespeare speaks more to some people than to others. The purpose is to generate discussion that deepens everyone’s understanding of what makes writing work. Those lessons translate into stronger performance as students try new approaches in their own work.

6. Follow up on summer writing! Did you think we forgot? We didn’t! Just before the summer break, we posted a number of suggestions for keeping writing skills strong throughout the summer (see our “Thinking Like a Writer” post, published 5/28/14). They included such things as—
• Nominating favorite books, authors, passages, etc.
• Keeping a journal
• Conducting an interview
• Building your own quiz
• Trying something new in the world of writing
• Writing to an author
• Writing a letter to anyone
• Searching out 10 (or more) conventional errors
• Creating “found” poetry
• Trying photo journalism
• Writing post cards

If you or your students tried any of these things (or something you came up with), you’ll want to follow up with discussions, oral readings, bulletin board displays, podcasts, or anything invention dictates. Redwoods4

Coming up on Gurus . . .
A colleague wrote a letter recently in which he said, “I spent a whole weekend correcting students’ work, and you know what they did? They threw the papers in the trash. This is getting discouraging!” No kidding. And he’s not the only one getting discouraged. We’ve tackled this issue before—teaching conventions without wearing out the red pen. We think it’s worth revisiting as Common Core testing becomes more prevalent and the emphasis on strong editing skills compels some teachers to seek out shortcuts. Don’t panic! Instead, drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas for actually teaching conventions, not just correcting them.

Meantime, we hope you enjoyed a good summer. Thanks for coming back! Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops on teaching writing for the 21st Century, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


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.





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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Use/Topic: Literary Devices—Irony, Dramatic Irony

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

Other titles to help with Literary Devices: 

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

If You’re Not from the Coast of Peru…

By A. D.

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

The taste of fresh seafood just pulled from the water.

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

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

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


If You’re Not a Book Lover…

By H. J.

If you’re not a book lover,

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

Double stacked shelves of books,

Books piled on the stairs, by the couch,

Teetering on the bedside table.

If you’re not a book lover,

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

About pushing your nose right up and into the binding,

Careful not to push too hard…


If You’re Not from the Mantle…

By S. B.

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

You can’t know my magma.

You’ll never feel the searing heat or gases hiss

Or watch the layers fold and break about your head.


If you’re not from the mantle,

You’ll never see the plates slide

Or collide

Or get fried

Or watch a small part of you escape

Knowing you have shaped the world…


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

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

Use/Topic: Immigration

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

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

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

Use/Topic: Creative Biographies/Primary Source Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Note

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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


Something exciting just happened in the world of writing assessment. A good friend–Connie Spiegel–started a company in Portland, Oregon called Raters of the Lost Art. The Raters are committed to assessing student writing as it was meant to be assessed–you remember: a person sits down with a paper and reads it, thinks about it, sometimes reads it a second time, and responds thoughtfully. And not just with scores, either. We’re talking comments. Remember those? And here’s a new twist: Connie and her team can assess papers using both 6-trait and Common Core criteria. How about that?

Maybe this is even more important than we thought. In a recent post, Spiegel takes us on a small assessment journey, looking at a piece of writing–“Horses”–posted in the CCSS Appendix as a model. She weighs it against the demands of both the traits and the Common Core, asking us in effect to focus on the best of both worlds. The piece is written by a highly competent third grade student who has completed an impressive amount of research, but is clearly held in check by some formulaic requirements. You will find Spiegel’s analysis, I think, both enlightening and thought provoking. I urge you to have a look. Go to “Raters of the Lost Art” to find the website; click on “Forum,” then on “Hold Your Horses.” Get ready for an exhilarating ride.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I (Vicki) am putting the finishing touches on my review of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s delightful book Exclamation Mark, and will have that post up shortly. Thanks for stopping by, and please do so often, even if we are into summer. Jeff and I keep writing, and we hope you’ll keep visiting, in between other adventures. You’re probably not thinking about professional development right now, but when you do, remember . . . we can custom build a writing workshop for you and your district–featuring traits, standards, literature, workshop, or all of it combined. Call us: 503-579-3034.

9780763646011_p0_v1_s114x166  IMG_0575

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

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

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

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

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

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

In the Classroom

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coyote Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I learned…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…that I write a lot like Gary Paulsen.

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

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

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

…that editing is different from revising.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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