Tag Archive: teaching informational writing


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.

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Summary

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.

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Informational writing is a BIG deal in the CCSS. In this post, we take a close-up look at what informational writing is, what the CCSS expectations are, and what—precisely—students must do to succeed on next year’s writing assessments.

Definition. By definition, informational writing teaches us about the world. Purists will tell you that informational writing is a little different from nonfiction, even though the latter is fact-based and true-to-life. Nonfiction may take a narrative form, though—as in some news stories, for example, or a biography. It’s also important to distinguish between informational writing and exposition, which is the free-wheeling exploration of a topic. Exposition can come right out of the writer’s head; it’s a product of imagination, philosophy, observation, and personal perspective all combined, making it ideally suited to on-demand writing. Informational writing, on the other hand, also relies on observation and experience, but the information presented must be supported by research.

Purpose. All three umbrella genres defined by the Common Core serve important instructional purposes. Narrative teaches the art of creating a setting and characters readers care about. It also offers experience in dealing with the most challenging of all organizational structures: plot. This is the organizational design writers agonize over—because it has to be good. Really, really good. No matter how strong other elements may be, if the plot is weak, implausible, or disappointing, a story falls on its face.

Argument teaches writers to examine an issue from more than one side, to take a definitive stand, and to defend that position through credible and compelling evidence. Above all, crafting an argument teaches writers to think.

Informational writing encourages writers to dig for hidden or little-known details, and present them in a way that expands others’ knowledge and understanding. This process turns writers into researchers and teachers.

Informational writing merits special attention because while a few of our students may become poets or novelists, and a few more may become attorneys, virtually all will engage in some form of informational writing: reports and summaries, articles of all types, definitions and explanations, product descriptions, newspaper journalism, photo journalism, posters, pamphlets, websites, CD-ROMs, educational materials, historic summaries, Internet features or blogs, and more. Much more. To really appreciate just how much, try keeping a comprehensive list of all the things you read in a month, big and small. Chances are—even if you’re a poetry buff or a lover of mystery novels (as I am)—the majority of reading you do focuses on information in its many forms. Teaching students to both read and write informational text is essential in preparing them for Twenty-First Century life.

CCSS Requirements
Following are the explicit requirements of the CCSS related to informational writing at grade 5. (Please check

for requirements specific to your grade level.) Notice that the first standard is complex, involving several different skills. The remaining four are more focused.

1. W.5.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

What’s required here?
Know your topic. Know precisely what your topic is and be able to express this to a reader using concise, understandable language.
Start with a killer lead. Introduce the topic clearly and directly, setting up the discussion that follows in an engaging manner that tells readers this topic is both important and interesting.
Keep it focused! Focus on your topic section to section, paragraph to paragraph. Don’t wander!
Get organized. Group related information in a logical way. Put things together that go together, and begin and end with key, relevant information. Think about putting things into a four-drawer chest. You want socks in one place, tee shirts in another—not everything jumbled together. But in addition, you need to decide what should go in the very top drawer, the very bottom drawer, and right in the middle.
Provide visual clues. Use formatting to guide the reader: e.g., subheads or bulleted lists. Everything you do should be designed to make your document EASY to read.
Enhance the message as necessary. Use illustrations or multimedia—photos, charts and graphs, maps, but also video and audio as necessary. Note: Keep in mind that writing may be a part of assessing other subjects, such as math, making visuals like diagrams or charts invaluable.

2. W.5.2.B: Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic

What’s required here?
Define the “range” of your topic. Get a sense of how “big” your topic really is. You won’t be able to tell everything, so try to identify the three, four, or five subtopics that matter most. This initial planning makes it much easier to zero in on details you want to showcase.
Choose details wisely. Don’t tell readers what they know: Elephants are big, They live in Africa and India. Dig for things readers may not know: Elephants can remember trainers and other humans for decades, Elephants can learn complex behaviors just by watching other elephants, Females elephants protect all young—not just their own.
Understand the nature of detail. Detail takes many forms: descriptions, facts, images, history, research findings and knowledge or insight from experts (via quotations). Use a variety to make your writing interesting.
Back claims with specific examples. For instance, if you say weather has changed markedly in the last ten thousand years, explain what you mean. Are deserts expanding? Temperatures rising? Are water tables drying up? What’s happening to ocean currents? Good examples should be both specific and verifiable through recent and reliable research.

3. W.5.2.C: Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

What’s required here?
Use transitions effectively. Transitions are word bridges, taking us from thought to thought, paragraph to paragraph, or chapter to chapter. Where links are less than obvious, use transitions to take your reader by the hand and guide him/her through your thinking. Don’t overdo it, though. Beginning every sentence with a transitional phrase will drive readers crazy.
Understand what transitions are. Transitions serve a purpose. They guide readers from point to point, like signage in a park or museum. The word Obviously takes readers down one path. The word Amazingly takes readers in another direction entirely. Choose transitions with care because like hand gestures or facial expressions, they influence the way readers interpret your message.
Sometimes, one word will do it: however, next, specifically
Sometimes it takes a phrase: on the other hand, to look at the problem from a different perspective, which brings us to the primary point, looking back in time, imagining the world a hundred years from now, at the end of this period in time, to everyone’s amazement
Transitions can even be whole paragraphs: We’ve seen how the Industrial Revolution changed completely and forever the way people interact with one another and with nature. But make no mistake. The next 50 years will witness changes far greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past five centuries combined. Following is a preview.

4. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

What’s required here?
Choose words carefully. The first word that comes into your head may or may not be the best for expressing a thought. In the preceding sentence, I chose to write first word that comes into your head. But what if I wrote something different? I could change the tone of that sentence by writing first word you think of or first word that occurs to you or first word that manifests itself. Take time to kick around options so you wind up saying what you mean to say—and in the tone of voice that’s right for your document.
Don’t fall victim to thesaurus syndrome. The words big, enormous, vast, spacious, expansive, and humongous are related—but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t wear a vast hat or eat a spacious sandwich. Choose the word that fits your precise intended meaning.
Use the vocabulary of the content area with ease and understanding. Every topic has a specialized language to go with it. For example, when writing about the Cosmos, a writer needs to use terms like galaxy, black hole, pulsar, gravity, super nova, relativity, or elliptical orbit with confidence and accuracy.
Explain any terms that might be unfamiliar. Most readers understand gravity, but terms like pulsar or quark could be new for some, so the occasional specialized term might need explanation.

5. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.e Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.

What’s required here?
End with a bang. The ending is your final opportunity to create an impression, so make it count. Don’t settle for banality: That’s why the Cosmos is important to us all. Yawn. Instead, create an ending that’s effective, that provides satisfaction, and that leaves the reader with something to think about: “Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. 1980, 345).
Go with the flow. Make sure the ending flows logically from information presented. A surprise is one thing—going off topic or raising new issues that seem disconnected with your primary topic is another.
Don’t repeat. Don’t repeat what you just said as if you think the reader wasn’t really paying attention. Think creatively: e.g., Reveal a detail you’ve held back for last, surprise the reader, pose a question yet to be answered, suggest something to keep in mind for the future, or wrap up with a quotation from someone with a bit of wisdom on your topic. At the end of her chapter on hawks, biologist and author Sy Montgomery closes her discussion with the “unspoken rules” by which hawks live their lives: “Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies” (Birdology, 2010, 148). No platitudes there.

What about older students?
As all fans and followers of the CCSS know well, expectations grow increasingly demanding with grade level. By grades 11 and 12, students are expected to do everything noted above, plus the following:

• Ensure that each new element (think “detail”) introduced builds on what has come before, so that the whole piece has unity and creates a conceptual scaffold that takes readers to an increasingly heightened understanding of the topic.
• Choose only the most significant and relevant facts and details to use in developing the topic.
• Incorporate such literary devices as metaphor, simile, and analogy to clarify meaning.
• Maintain a formal style and objective tone (think lively and engaging, but professional—and never biased).
• Use the conclusion as an opportunity to articulate the significance or implications of the topic.

Goals and Pitfalls
The School Improvement Network has issued rubrics developed (by a company called Tunitin) for use in scoring student writing in upcoming CCSS writing assessments. (Note: This information is NOT just for English or writing teachers. Writing may also be required in math and other assessments, where similar rubrics will likely be used.) These may change, of course, prior to testing. But they’re still worth looking up and sharing with students because they offer great insight about what raters will be looking for. Simply type “Common Core Writing Rubrics” into your search engine to find printable copies.

The so-called “Informative” rubric spans six traits: focus, development, audience, cohesion (primarily use of transitions), language and style, and conventions. (Note: If you teach the 6 traits—the original ones—these new CCSS “six” correlate to the original 6 traits as follows (CCSS term on left):

focus = ideas and presentation/formatting
audience = ideas and voice
development = organization
cohesion = organization
language and style = word choice and voice
conventions = conventions

Scores on the CCSS rubrics range from a high of 5 to a low of 1, and are defined by these headings (in order): Exceptional, Skilled, Proficient, Developing, and Inadequate.

How should you use these rubrics in the classroom?
Here are six suggestions:

1. First, print copies for your students. They will improve more rapidly and consistently if they know precisely what CCSS raters are looking for.
2. Discuss “Exceptional” (Level 5) descriptors. This is the CCSS ideal—for now at least. So this is your goal. Discuss these with students to see if anything is unclear—and also how close they feel they come to meeting each of these high level goals in their own writing. Think also of the literature you share as a class. Which professional writers meet the top goals? Their work can serve as a model.
3. Score some papers as a class. Almost nothing you do will enhance your students’ understanding of good writing more than this simple lesson—and students of all ages enjoy it immensely. Use anonymous copies of student work (from other classes, if possible). But also score a few professionally written essays (and don’t assume they’ll all get 5s, either). As you score, begin with Level 5. Does the piece you are assessing meet the requirements outlined there? If not, drop down point by point until you find the level that fits best. Don’t be surprised if your students do not all agree on the most appropriate scores. Excellent discussions emerge from these disagreements.
4. Ask students to score essays of their own. If they do not meet the Level 5 requirements according to their own assessment, ask them to work out a revision plan—and to follow it in revising their own work. They cannot always go from 1 to 5, but even a one-point revision shows progress.
5. Be cautious about that term “inadequate.” Negative terms can hurt—and actually impede progress. Think of Level 1 as a “beginning.” The writer has put something on paper.
6. Pay particular attention to problems identified at Levels 1 and 2. Any of them could result in lower scores. Following is a brief summary of the major pitfalls in informational writing:

Pitfalls for Informational Writing
• The topic is unclear—or the writer doesn’t really have a topic yet
• Information is limited
• There are few if any facts or examples to explain or expand the topic
• The conclusion is missing or weak
• The writer does not seem “in tune” with the informational needs and interests of the audience
• Graphics and formatting (e.g., subheads, bulleted lists, illustrations) are missing, confusing, or simply not helpful
• The writer uses few if any transitions—and does not link ideas to one another or to the main topic
• Word choice is vague
• Words are used incorrectly
• The writer makes limited (if any) use of metaphor or simile to clarify ideas
• The tone is not appropriately objective and professional
• The text contains multiple conventional errors (according to handbooks published by the MLA, Modern Language Association, or APA, American Psychological Association)

“Must Have” Skills Students Need to Succeed
Research: Students must be capable of identifying sources of information, setting up a research plan, and following it to gather data.

Note taking: Just finding a good source is not enough, whether it’s a book or person to interview. It’s important to zero in on what’s important, ask the right questions (whether of an interviewee or just in your own mind), and take good notes that will later translate into riveting text. This means capturing what matters and not overloading yourself with trivia.

Organizing information: Many students find piles of data daunting. They don’t know what to write about first, next, or last. Just telling students to “get organized” is of no help. You need to walk them through it step by step. Try this: Create a list of informational tidbits (about 20 or so) on any topic at all, then model the organization of that information. Begin by crossing out what you don’t need: e.g., what’s less interesting, what most readers likely know. Then group remaining tidbits under two, three, or four subheadings. Next, organize the information within each of those subhead categories. Write a strong lead and ending for your piece. Come up with a title for the piece. Once you’ve done this, give students a second set of informational bits on a whole new topic, and have them go through the same steps you just modeled—perhaps working with a partner.

Using transitions: Identify transitions in the reading you do together and discuss how they work. Share lists of transitions, but don’t depend on lists. That’s like teaching math by giving students a list of numbers. Instead, have them search for passages in books, newspapers, or Internet articles where transitions are used well—and talk about why. Talk about what happens in your mind as a reader when you encounter transitions like Suddenly, Just then, Worst of all, Luckily, Just out of sight, and so on. In the CCSS assessment, the trait of “Cohesion” is largely defined by the effective use of transitions—so using them skillfully is vital. (See our December 9, 2013 post on the CCSS Writing Assessment for tips on teaching effective use of transitions.)

Writing strong conclusions: Students often rely on formula, repeating their three main points. That isn’t going to be good enough. Just reading the words “In summary” could be enough to make a reader think, “Cliché, formula, score of 3 or lower.” Writers will need to be creative. Study endings from the best informational books and articles you can find. What are the alternatives to formula and predictable re-hashes of points already made? Create a class list of strategies that work—and practice writing model conclusions.

Editing and citing sources: Conventions will need to be top-notch. This means students must spell, capitalize, and punctuate correctly, use proper grammar, and know how to cite sources—books, periodicals, interviewees, or whatever. Practice in editing is essential—and any practice of less than ten minutes is probably going to be only minimally helpful. Note that the CCSS requirements for conventions rely on MLA or ALA handbooks, so it is a good idea to have one of these in your classroom and teach students to use it as a resource. Look something up every day and know the guidelines for citing sources. (Note: Check Amazon for a series of affordable pamphlets that combine MLA and APA Guidelines in a compressed format. Author: Thomas Smith Page/Inc. BarCharts.)

Update on Machine Scoring
Discussion continues about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in scoring writing assessment samples. As you know if you’re a regular reader, at Gurus we object adamantly to machine scoring—for a host of reasons (See our post from 11/7/2013 for an extensive review of this issue). The primary advantage with AI, of course, is speed. Quick (think “scan and done”) scoring radically reduces cost, and unfortunately, cost reduction is an almost unparalleled motivator. It’s important to keep this possibility in mind when preparing your young writers for upcoming assessments because machines are not very good at nuance. As an example, they’re very good at identifying advanced vocabulary, but not quite as good at determining whether those big words are used well. Further, no one can seem to figure out how to program them to score “voice.” (What?! Machines cannot detect when something touches the human heart?) Similarly, they have laser-like accuracy when it comes to spotting conventional errors, but no sense of humor whatsoever regarding conventional creativity. (Imagine e. e. cummings in a writing assessment.) For more on this ongoing debate, see “Automating Writing Evaluations” by Caralee Adams in Education Week “Technology Counts,” Mar. 13, 2014 (Vol. 33, #25, p. 13, 15), http://www.edweek.org

Recommended Mentor Texts
Use of mentor texts is invaluable in teaching informational writing—and luckily, there are many more to choose from than were available even a decade ago. You don’t have to rely just on books; many periodicals—Scientific American, National Geographic—feature Pulitzer Prize-worthy writing by some of the best authors around. Read aloud to students (of all ages) frequently from the best informational writing you can find, and use selected pieces as mentor texts to illustrate things like—

• Strong leads
• Effective conclusions
• Good use of detail
• Artful use of transitions
• Appropriate tone and style
• Striking word choice

Between the two of us, Jeff and I could easily list 100 or more outstanding informational books. The following is a more manageable list of particular favorites. We’ve noted general reading levels, but please keep in mind that you can read small passages from any book (including those aimed primarily at adults) to even the youngest students. You might read the whole book, but you can be selective in choosing passages to share.

The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife—word choice so striking you’ll read some passages several times.
Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) We may not love them, but we sure love hearing about them. Simon has all the gory details.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Wonderfully detailed history of how homes and their amenities, from phones to windows to bathtubs, evolved.
Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Beautifully researched, dramatic stories of courageous people who formed a network of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—striking layout featuring artwork, numerous photos, and maps.
Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science by Bill Nye (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Clear and simple explanations of various aspects of physics.
Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Informational, adult) Details and word choice so captivating, this one is hard to put down—many, many excellent read-aloud passages.
Black Gold by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Concise review of oil’s history, and its impact on world economics and politics—good for illustrating the value of research.
The Brain by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Good model of clear science writing.
Buried in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Fascinating blend of U.S. history and forensic science, filled with revealing photos (some graphic).
The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (Informational, adult) Everything you ever wanted to know about cockroaches, and then some.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Informational, Grade 9 and up) Sure, a lot has happened since Sagan wrote this landmark book, but his gift for rendering astro-physics poetic remains unmatched.
The Deep Sea Floor by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) One of the best leads you’ll find in a science text. Also excellent for modeling good use of terminology.
Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Detailed, often hilarious accounts of how our hardiest creatures survive extreme conditions.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Combines multiple genres: informational, descriptive, personal narrative, travel writing, history in a seamless fashion—makes you want to visit Australia immediately. You can choose from among hundreds of fine informational passages for read-alouds your students will love.
Just the Right Size by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) A simple math concept turns into a delightful chapter-by-chapter essay on how animals evolve into just the right size—excellent example of Informational voice.
Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Illustrated with the author’s own photos—check out the table of contents to see how well organized this one is.
Next Stop Neptune: Experiencing the Solar System by Alvin Jenkins (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Photos, art, and text work together to relay intriguing details.
Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 4 and up) How could an author who feared rats as a child write a book this intriguing? Grade 1 through adult, listeners can’t get enough.
Our Planet by the MySpace Community (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Well-researched book on going green, with many sections useful in modeling argument.
Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Easy reading, highly engaging—filled with choice details about unusual animals.
Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam (Informational, Grade 4 and up) No matter where you are, there’s a spider close by. That’s just one of dozens of spidery facts Margery Facklam taught me in this book.
Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (Informational, graphic sections, Grade 10 and up) The stunning story of how sugar drove the Atlantic slave trade—filled with voice and striking word choice.
The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Clear, detailed writing with photos vivid enough to make you jump.
Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns (Informational, Grade 6 and up) You won’t believe how much plastic floats in our seas.
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman (Informational & poetry, Grade 5 and up) A terrific book for showing how to deal with a given topic in more than one genre. Informational essays and correlating poems pay homage to nature’s toughest species.
What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Highly readable account of
parasites—detailed (almost too detailed in parts!), with excellent use of terminology.
Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife and conservation—Quammen is an informational writing master.
World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Essentially a 171-page argument for rethinking our fishing practices—exceptionally well-written and useful for illustrating most writing standards of the Common Core
Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 6 and up) A well- researched account of factors leading up to the Dust Bowl, life during this period, and projections for future Dust Bowls planet-wide; excellent for showing how a professional writer can deal with a vast array of information and display it in multiple forms: facts, essays, songs, maps, photos, and more.

Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:
http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/literature-and-language-arts/language-arts/write-traits

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Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next time around, Jeff returns with reviews of some outstanding new books. He’ll have many classroom teaching tips you won’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about meeting Common Core standards in informational writing—or any genre—we can help. 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 know the standards inside and out, and we can help you connect them with writing process and workshop—as well as outstanding mentor texts for all ages. Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. 2012. Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New York: Disney, Jump at the Sun Books. 231 pp. (excluding appended materials)

Genres: Biographical anthology, historic narrative, informational writing 

Ages: Intermediate and middle school

Features: Poetic introductions to each person profiled; striking watercolor portraits (and additional illustrations) by artist Brian Pinkney; exceptionally thorough Index; Source List for further research; Time Line (1731-2009) detailing milestones in black history and the Civil Rights Movement; and a moving and revealing Preface by the author.   

Summary

With his recent post on Steve Sheinkin’s book Bomb, Jeff made this important point: Everything is made up, ultimately, of stories. Certainly this is true of history—and Andrea Pinkney’s masterful Hand in Hand shows just how explosively powerful writing can be when fact and story combine.

Hand in Hand recounts the individual biographies of ten men whose vision and courage changed American history—and the lives of all of us who live here—forever. What makes the book particularly exceptional are the connections from story to story, person to person, that give the book its dramatic momentum. As Pinkney puts it in her Preface (p. 3), “. . . when woven together like a chain, the individual accomplishments of these men link up to tell one story—a story of triumph.”

The ten include Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack H. Obama II. This means that Pinkney’s historic timeline stretches from the early 1700s through the present day—quite a span. Admittedly, the author had a difficult time choosing which men to profile, and an equally challenging time keeping the number to ten. As she explains in the Preface, her collection “could have contained hundreds of stories!” (p. 3) In preliminary discussions with members of a literacy group at the University of Illinois, however, Pinkney noticed that some names kept coming up repeatedly as inspirational, as symbols of racial pride. In listening to the wisdom of others, Pinkney gradually managed to narrow her list. She wanted to keep that list small so that she could “delve into the early lives, influences, and motivations” of each historic figure. There’s an important lesson here for students: Shrink the breadth of the topic and you can go deeper.

Hand in Hand is beautifully organized. The individual biographies are short, averaging about twenty pages, and presented in the order in which the ten men were born. Each opens with a stirring poem, capturing the essence of who a particular figure was and how he influenced others. The author begins with each man’s early years, revealing intriguing information many readers won’t have known previously—e.g., who knew that Thurgood Marshall, our nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice, was originally named “Thoroughgood,” that he was a legendary class cut-up, constantly pulling pranks and making people laugh, or that he was the great grandson of a slave so rebellious he was finally freed because he could not be sold to fearful slave owners.

The book is beautifully illustrated, too. Full-page watercolor portraits by Brian Pinkney are startlingly vibrant, reflecting not just the physical features, but the underlying personality of each figure.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book provides an extraordinary beginning point for a study of the Civil Rights Movement and the living forces that drove it. But Hand in Hand offers so much more than that. From her impressive body of research, Pinkney has gleaned for us what is most interesting, most important, or least well known about ten men who made a difference. The resulting book is an homage to people whose lives mattered—and to the very courage required to live such a life. It’s destined to be a classic, and will prove an invaluable resource to anyone who teaches informational writing, history, Civil Rights, or research.   

In the Classroom

1. Previewing the book for yourself. As you preview the book, think about how you want to share it. You might read selected chapters aloud, or choose passages from every chapter, piquing students’ interest to read more on their own. If you plan to ask students to do additional research on some figures, read-alouds can make an excellent springboard for that. Notice that the poems contain a great deal of important information—and tend to be highly personal. Think about how you want to present them. You may wish to read a chapter first, then share the accompanying poem aloud when students can more readily appreciate its full impact. As an alternative, consider sharing hard copies of poems for students to read, reflect upon, discuss with partners, or read aloud to the class.

2. Background. Some figures profiled in Hand in Hand are probably well known to virtually all your students. Others may not be, however. You might begin by sharing the list within the Table of Contents to see which names and achievements are familiar, and to get a sense of how much of their history students know already. Consider posting a list or chart of the ten figures with room for adding details under each one as students discover something new or surprising.

3. The art of detail. The Common Core places great emphasis on the inclusion of detail, whether it’s descriptive detail in a narrative, authentic information in a researched piece (such as this one), or evidence to support an argument. Great details are vivid and noteworthy, interesting—and often surprising. Particularly in informational writing, carefully chosen details teach readers something new.  As you share chapters or passages from Davis Pinkney’s book, ask students, What did you find most interesting? Did anything surprise you? What did you learn that you had never gained from previous reading, discussions, television, or films? Their answers, which you may wish to record in some way (See #2 above), form a great basis for discussing how an author decides which details to share.

 4. Digging deeper. Detail takes many forms: visual description, facts, explanations, observations, quotations, and so on. So it’s helpful to share multiple examples with students, and talk about the various ways details work in writing. Consider the following two passages from the book. What kind of detail do you find in each? (Tip: After discussing these two, ask your students to look for other examples of details used well—drawing from this book or any piece of writing—and talk about the many forms details can take.)

From the chapter titled Thurgood Marshall

In 1951, Thurgood [Marshall] took on a case known as Oliver Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka. The case began when Topeka, Kansas resident Oliver Brown, the daddy of eight-year-old Linda Brown, tried to enroll his daughter at Sumner Elementary, a white school close to their home. (p. 121) Question: What kind of detail is this?

From the chapter titled Barack H. Obama II

Young Barrack had heard so many stories about this larger-than-life man, but just by looking, Barack could see that he was no Superman. His skinny neck poked out from his shirt collar like a protruding pencil. He wore thick glasses. His complexion was black as the skin on a raisin. (p. 208) Question: What kind of detail is this?

5. Common themes. The lives of the ten men portrayed in this book are connected in many ways. One recurring theme is education. What did education mean to various men in this book—and what sacrifices did they have to make to pursue it? Do we tend to value education today as much as these ten men clearly did? Expository Writing: What does it mean to be a literate person in 21st Century America? Have students write about this from a personal perspective—or take the writing a step further and invite them to interview people who have pursued education in various ways (e.g., through formal education, reading, experience, travel). Is education all about what we learn in school, or do we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves? Other themes: As you continue your reading, ask students to identify other commonalities, other threads that link the lives of these ten men. As you discuss this, be SURE to share the opening poem (p. 1) that introduces the book.

6. Organization. One aspect of organization is limiting the focus of your topic—even when you have a whole book to fill. Another, of course, is deciding in what order to present information to your readers. Ask students to imagine themselves as the author of this or a similar book. With so many stories to tell about civil rights and the achievements of black Americans, how would they decide which stories to include—and in what order to present them? In other words, how does a writer turn a mountain of research into something manageable enough to squeeze between two covers? Once you’ve had a chance to discuss this, share Andrea Davis Pinkney’s own perspective on organizing information (middle of page 3 through middle of page 4) from the Preface. What lessons does Pinkney have to teach us about organizing information efficiently?

7. Voice. How would your students characterize the voice of this book? Is it lively? Pedantic? Authoritative? Curious? Formal or informal? Conversational? Inviting? Serious or humorous? Expository writing: Ask students to write about the nature of voice in Hand in Hand, quoting three or more passages from the book to support their position.

8. Genre. How would your students characterize this book? Is this narrative—or informational writing? Or does it bridge both worlds? Can students cite other writing examples that span more than one genre? Ask them to imagine how it would be to read Pinkney’s book if each chapter contained a list of facts about the person being profiled—and nothing more. No stories, no anecdotes, no descriptive passages. How might this change a reader’s response? Are stories important to our ability to assimilate and recall information? Why?

9. Character—and choices. As the Common Core Standards for Narrative writing remind us, character is defined through choices. On page 66, for example, we learn that W.E.B. DuBois made a choice at an early age to be a reader, spending full days at a local bookstore (while his friends followed other pursuits) and reading books cover to cover—some of which the store’s owner allowed him to take home: “Those history volumes were like a good friend to W.E.B. He read them in the morning. He read them when the afternoon sun stretched its pointy fingers through the branches of Great Barrington’s pine trees . . . He even read them long after his mother told him to snuff his late-night lantern and go to sleep.” How much do we learn about the character of W.E.B. DuBois just from these few lines? Literary Writing: Ask students to choose one character from the book and identify one or more choices that help define who that person is. Ask them to quote from the book in making their case.

10. Literacy—and The “Preamble.” In the Preface, Andrea Davis Pinkney tells us her book was inspired by a group calling themselves “Brother Authors,” whose purpose was to foster literacy among African American boys ages 13 to 18 (page 2). Read aloud the Preamble that the Brother Authors shared with Pinkney when she first visited them at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago). What would drive people to make such a pledge? How would your students characterize the group’s purpose or mission—and how did they hope to achieve it through writing? Expository Writing: After discussing this, ask students to write a short expository/reflective piece about their own writing. What do they hope to achieve through their own words and their own voice? What impact do they want to have on readers, now or in the future?

11. “Important truths” vs. stereotypes. Read and discuss the thirteen “important truths that affirm the power of black manhood” (pp. 4-5, Preface). How is each of these manifested in the book? Clearly, the lives of the people Andrea Davis Pinkney portrays in Hand in Hand have been a living, breathing argument against stereotypical thinking. But how often must stereotypes be shattered before we let go of them completely? Are stereotypes (of any kind—whether relating to race, ethnicity, age, religion, or other factors) still affecting our thinking and behavior? What damage do stereotypes do? How do they originate, and how do we combat them? Argument Writing: After discussing the nature and impact of stereotypical thinking, ask students to write argument paragraphs in response to one of the following questions (or any question the student poses for him-/herself):

  • Which is ultimately stronger—a stereotype or the truth?
  • If a person is taught as a child to think in stereotypes, can he/she still overcome this?
  • Can one individual effectively combat stereotypical thinking on a personal or social level?
  • Is the power of stereotypical thinking declining in America—or in any culture?
  • Is stereotypical thinking more damaging to those victimized by it—or to those who practice it?

12. Argument: Room for one more? As noted earlier, Andrea Pinkney discusses (in the Preface) the challenge she faced in narrowing her topic to include just ten biographies. With many names to choose from, it could not have been easy to limit her selection. Was anyone omitted from the book that your students feel strongly should have been included? Argument Writing: Ask them to write a brief argument, making a case for including anyone they feel should definitely not have been left out. Note: Remember the Common Core emphasis on evidence. Opinions are important—but they’re not enough. Students must support their choices with reasons and evidence reflecting a candidate’s character, achievements, or influence.

13. Pushing the boundaries with informational research. What if Andrea Pinkney were to write another book, this time focusing on women who have changed American history. Which African American women would your students wish to see included in such a book? Can you list five—or even ten? You might begin by brainstorming, then do some research to identify names that might not occur to your students initially (e.g., Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Waris Dirie, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Bessie Coleman, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Wilma Rudolph, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Hamilton, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni—to name a few). Informational Writing: Have students choose one person to research in depth; then create your own book about African American women (or women of any culture) who have changed America. Don’t feel limited to ten! Tip: This research provides a good opportunity to create one or more wikis, multi-person, online research papers to which several students contribute as they do ongoing research. Wikis can be shared throughout a school or larger community.

14. Design. Talk about the book’s overall design. You might use a document projector to share specific features, such as chapter titles, title pages, Brian Pinkney’s watercolor portraits (as well as other illustrations), and the layout for the book’s recurring poetry. How would you describe the style of the paintings? Are such illustrations a good choice versus, say, photographs? Why? How would photos have influenced the overall tone or feel of the book? Do paintings have a kind of voice—just as writing itself has voice? Ask students to comment on other features they notice, even little things such as the type and size of the fonts chosen, or the use of color. How do these small but important editorial choices affect readers? What about the inclusion of such features as a Source List, Index, or Time Line for major events in black history? How are such features of help to readers? Do your students typically refer to such features in a book they read? Why or why not?

15. A philosophical question. This is a book about people who dramatically changed the course of our nation’s history. What does it take to change history? Is it something within a person—or does opportunity play a role? Talk and/or write about this.

16. A different kind of beginning. As we learn from the Common Core Standards, a good beginning in informational writing sets up the discussion that follows. Does the Preface serve that introductory purpose in this book? Have your students ever considered including a Preface or formal Introduction (Foreword) in any of their own writing? When are such features most appropriate?

17. Language. How would your students describe the language in Hand in Hand? Consider this passage from the chapter on Jackie Robinson:

Every time they called him a degrading name, he grew more determined. When the curse words flew, he smacked the pitcher’s ball with his baseball bat harder than hard—knocked the jelly out of that doughnut—and rounded the bases to home, where he quietly took in the victory of another run. Jackie ate words of prejudice like they were mounds of spinach. The insults were bitter, but they made him stronger! (p. 135)

Is this language more formal—or informal? Which words or expressions lean more toward the informal? Tip: Try revising this passage so that the language is very formal throughout. Then read both versions aloud. Is anything lost in the revision? If so, what? Is there value to conversational language even in informational writing? How many of your students prefer it?

18. Tracing connections through personal narrative. Rachel Robinson, widow of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, was interviewed recently on the television show Sunday Morning (CBS, April 7, 2013). When asked whether we could trace a connection, a thread, from Jackie Robinson to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama, she said, “We can’t say that what Jack did put Obama in office, no. But these things are connected. These lives are connected.” Discuss this with your students. How are the lives of people like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama “connected”? How does each person’s contribution to the world build on the contributions of those who have gone before? Narrative Writing: Ask students to write personal narratives that trace the thread of their own lives, connecting who they are now to the people who have influenced them and shaped their character or beliefs. Those people might include family members, friends, teachers, or famous figures. Tip: Like Andrea Davis Pinkney, dig deep! Encourage students to look back in time—as far as possible. An important lesson this book teaches is that the lives and words of previous generations continue to inspire us.

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be reviewing a fascinating picture book, The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman. This is a most unusual book, one Jeff is previewing with students this week. You won’t want to miss his write-up and classroom suggestions. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

A Really Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. 2008. New York: Delacorte Press. 161 pages.

Ages: Written primarily for middle school and up, but appealing to readers from upper elementary through adult.

Genre: Informational, emphasizing astronomy, physics, and some history.

Summary

Curiosity may have killed off a cat or two, but it definitely breathes life into informational writing—as evidenced by the work of noted author Bill Bryson. This new edition of Bryson’s bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything has been condensed and adapted for younger readers—and the result is a book that makes physics and astronomy accessible not only for students, but for many adult readers as well. The ambitious title comes from the fact that the book deals with nothing less than the origin of the universe itself—and goes on to address major cosmic questions like these: Is there an “edge” to the universe? How many solar systems are there? How old is the earth? What are the odds of any living thing becoming a fossil? What happened to the dinosaurs? Does time have a shape? Should we fear asteroids? What pushed ocean living creatures onto land? Are we headed for chilly times—or a big warm-up?  These and literally hundreds of other related questions are tackled headlong through Bryson’s obvious passion for science and exploration. The style is conversational and snappy; chapters are short, easy to digest, and amply illustrated, both with striking photos and comical (often enlightening) cartoon drawings. Bryson’s primary goal is to give us a memorable and readable overview of how our universe, solar system, planet, and species came to be. No single topic is explored in great depth; but for the “big picture” (and I do mean big), this book is hard to beat. Most striking is Bryson’s obvious fascination with his topic. As he says in his Foreword, “Whether you are talking about how the universe began from nothing, or how each one of us is made up of trillions of mindless atoms that somehow work together in an agreeably coordinated fashion, or why the oceans are salty, or what happens when stars explode, or anything at all—it is all amazingly interesting. It really is.” There’s a lesson here. The capacity to find your topic “amazingly interesting” leads to supremely good writing.  You won’t find that stated anywhere in the Common Core standards—yet it just might be the single most important thing we can teach our young informational writers.

In the Classroom

There are several ways to use a well-written informational text such as this one:

  • Use it as a source of information students can then use to write their own essays, summaries, or commentary.
  • Discuss strategy, considering how the writer chooses details, organizes information, or makes technical passages appealing and understandable.
  • Use selected passages (or chapters) as models.

Following are suggestions for incorporating various forms of these three approaches, while emphasizing skills specified in the Common Core Standards:

  1. Reading. This would be a very long book to share aloud in its entirety, but if you preview it, you will find many favorite chapters to choose from. And since each chapter runs only two pages (Bryson sticks to this consistently), it’s fairly easy to share a chapter as an introduction to discussion or a writing lesson. Note: If you teach science and want additional background, by all means check out the parent book: A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, New York: Broadway Books.
  2. Presentation. Though presentation is something we often discuss last, in this case, it’s a good place to begin. That’s because the layout of the book is both visually appealing and thoughtfully integrated with the text. Notice the playful chapter head fonts, the various kinds of illustrations, the generous use of subheadings that make smaller topics easy to locate, and the ample use of white space (open space) that makes an occasionally technical discussion look easy to read. Be sure to use a document projector if you have one available.
  3. Topic.  Notice the title of the book. Normally, we caution students to keep their topics small and manageable. This is anything but! Did Bryson go too far . . . or, does he find a way to handle this seemingly infinite topic?
  4. The set-up.  If you’re familiar with the Common Core Standards for informational writing, you know that they call for skill in setting up a discussion. Share the early chapter, “How do they know that?” to see how Bryson does this. What do your students think? Is he successful?
  5. Developing the topic. The Common Core Standards for informational writing also require the writer to develop or expand the topic through “facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.” Does Bryson do a good job of this? In answering this question, you might begin by scanning the Table of Contents, to see what general sub-topics he covers. Then, as you share and discuss individual chapters, look for the ways in which Bryson develops or expands his topic. In other words, does he rely on facts? Definitions? Concrete details? Or—other means? Or does Bryson, in fact, meet ALL the criteria of the Common Core?
  6. Organization. Organization that promotes readers’ understanding is highly valued in the Common Core. One might think that organizing a book about “nearly everything” would be an all-but-impossible task. Of course, the book isn’t literally about everything—it has focus, meaning that some topics (cooking, pet ownership, European architecture) cannot be included. But in scanning the Table of Contents, pay attention to what Bryson discusses first, next, and last. See if your students can identify a pattern. Would they have organized anything differently? Left something out? Added something? Moved things around?
  7. Background and summary. What do your students know from previous reading (or other research) about the so-called Big Bang? How do they think of it? What existed prior to this point—and afterward? Share the chapter called “The Big Bant” (pp. 6-7). Then, ask students to write a summary description of the “Big Bang.” Was it really a “bang” like an explosion—or something more complex and subtle? Is it still going on today?
  8. Detail. One of the hallmarks of great informational writing is its capability to teach readers new information. In this book, we learn some astonishing things: e.g., gravity emerged within “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang” (p. 6). What other details are truly standouts—things that are definitely not common knowledge, and that we might not learn from a typical textbook? Make a list. Encourage students to include at least one such detail in each piece of their own informational writing.
  9. Research. It’s startling (if not downright hilarious) to note that critics of A Really Short History have suggested that Bryson has not adequately documented sources for his information—“not that we don’t trust him,” as one put it. True, this book does not have footnotes or endnotes. But surely, author Bill Bryson is not just making things up as he goes along—or trusting to memory . . . is he? Indeed, he is not. Begin by discussing research strategies with students. Where do they suppose Bryson got most of his information? From interviews? Reading? Personal experience? Actually—all of the above. For documentation, see the book on which this one is based, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In that earlier edition, Bryson thoroughly documents his research, beginning with the Acknowledgments (pp. vii to ix). He also includes an impressive set of Notes (pp. 479 to 516). Indeed, Bryson’s Notes are longer than some books. He also offers us a lengthy bibliography (pp. 517 to 527). Secondary students or others wishing for additional information (or further expansion of ideas) should consult A Short History, using A Really Short History as a kind of introduction.
  10. Voice. Critics are almost never happy, it seems. But some have actually complained that this book is not as humorous as some of Bryson’s work. Really? Well, it’s challenging to make jokes about the periodic table or the Richter Scale. But at the same time, Bryson has a wry wit, and a good sense of the absurd: “Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of kilometres [British spelling] to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in the English countryside, or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a truck on a lonely road in Arizona, but it does seem unlikely” p. 20).  So—what sort of voice is this anyway? After sharing a few passages aloud, ask your students to respond to this question, also discussing how voice influences the effectiveness of informational writing. Most students should notice, among other things, that Bryson is extremely enthusiastic about his topic. His voice is a mix of enthusiasm, excitement, curiosity, and confidence. How does this affect the way we as readers respond to the message?
  11. Word choice. Not all readers regard this book as highly technical; in fact, they’re very divided on this issue. What do your students think? Remember that another hallmark of good informational writing (and an integral part of the Common Core Standards) is the writer’s ability to use the language of the territory with skill and grace—and to make readers comfortable with any terminology necessary to a discussion of the topic at hand. Perhaps Bryson is so good at this that we hardly notice how many technical terms he is using. To check it out, have a look at the Index (pp. 162ff.). How many terms listed here would be familiar and comfortable without the author’s help? Consider . . . alchemy, australopithecines, calderas, cryptozoa, Doppler shift, eukaryote, exosphere, foraminiferans, hadrosaur, KT extinction, Manson crater, nucleotides, Pangaea, plate tectonics, red-shift, riwoche . . . to name just a handful. See if your students can identify passages in which Bryson makes word meaning clear through direct definition or from context (the way the term is used).
  12. Conventions. Let’s hear it for the bulleted list, bold print, and enlarged print! These elements, which may also be considered part of presentation, are clearly favored by the design editor. See if you can identify passages in which these or other design features make a difference in readability.
  13. Argument. The Common Core Standards for argument place great weight upon evidence, proving (to the best of your ability) that your assertions are accurate. With this in mind, consider author Bill Bryson’s arguments for the age of the Earth—estimated (according to sources for this book) at about 4.5 billion years (p. 74). What evidence exists to support this estimate? Is that evidence clearly and thoroughly presented here? Are you and your students convinced? In answering this, look particularly closely at the following chapters: “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 38), “Finding Earth’s age” (p. 40), “Slow and steady does it” (p. 44), “Finding fossils” (p. 46), and “So, here we are . . . “ (p. 74). Given the evidence available, what is the best educated guess for the age of our planet? Write about this.
  14. Argument. Some chapters of this book might be regarded as a bit scary—or at least troublesome. In one somewhat controversial chapter (“Yellowstone Park,” pp. 86-87), Bryson writes about the Yellowstone caldera, noting that the park is “full of unstable magma that could blow at any time” (p. 87). In others (pp. 90-94), we learn of the very real possibilities of Earth’s being hit by an asteroid (or indeed, more than one). Some readers feel that this information is too alarming to share with young readers. What do your students think? Is it questionable or important—even imperative—to include such information in a book intended for younger readers? Draft a short argument taking a position on this.
  15. Ending. One requirement of the Common Core Standards for informational writing is a strong ending. Look carefully at the chapters “Humans take over,” “What now?” and “Goodbye.” What sort of ending does Bryson provide for his discussion of our cosmic history? What challenges does he present? On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong do your students think this ending is? Why?
  16. Predictions. In two chapters, “Hot and cold” and “Chilly times” (pp. 142-145), Bryson suggests that the Earth has experienced alternating periods of extraordinary cold—and surprising tropical warmth. Where we are headed now is unknown, he says: “Only one thing is certain; we live on a knife edge.” Using information from this book or other sources, ask students to make an educated guess about where we might be headed.
  17. Survival—and more predictions. Throughout Earth’s history, certain species have shown an extraordinary capacity for survival. Discuss this with students. What characteristics enable some species to sustain life when others go extinct? Which species have been the most successful? Do humans have the necessary characteristics to survive indefinitely here on Earth? (To extend your discussion of this topic, check out Joyce Sidman’s incredible book, Ubiquitous.)
  18. Argument. Bryson’s ending to this book leaves us with an unmistakable challenge. He clearly states (p. 160) that if you were to put someone in charge of the cosmos, “you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.” Citing evidence from this book and other sources, ask students to write an argument defending or rejecting this point of view. Consider research that goes beyond reading, perhaps interviewing someone like an astronaut, biologist, botanist, astronomer, anthropologist, or sociologist. Ask students to think creatively about when and how they assemble evidence to support their point of view.
  19. Theme. This is clearly a science book, not a discussion of philosophy or religious perspective. Yet, throughout the book, Bryson refers to the “miracle of life.” From a scientific perspective, what does he mean by this? How does this theme influence the message and voice of the book?
  20. Questions, questions, questions . . . Bryson opens his book with a suggestion that his research was an effort to answer questions that bugged him as he read other books—the ones he didn’t find all that exciting (p. 3)! What questions remain for your students at the end of this book? Brainstorm a list. Then ask students to identify one question as the focus for personal research (a major focus for Common Core informational writing standards). Remember to emphasize all forms of research—not just reading, but also interviews, site visits, personal experience, and so on.

Note: Other books by Bill Bryson include In a Sunburned Country, Made in America, At Home, Neither Here Nor There, A Walk in the Woods, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is known for his in-depth research, meticulous attention to detail, unbridled curiosity, and almost unmatched ability to infuse even technical passages with voice.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Did you know Julia Child fancied cats? Look for a review of Minette’s Feast, a delightful and unusual book you’re sure to enjoy. We’ll also be talking in coming weeks about the often underrated importance of narrative writing. And we’ll continue making connections to the Common Core as we go along. Please remember, for the BEST in workshops integrating traits, standards, literature, process, and workshop, phone us at 503-579-3034. See you next time, and bring friends! Give every child a voice . . .