Tag Archive: teaching voice


strange-fruit-by-gary-golioStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio. 2017. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Genre: Biographic picture book, social commentary, history

Levels: Grade 8 and up

Features: Passionate artwork that beautifully complements the subject; helpful background information on the Café Society, the origin of “Strange Fruit,” and the brutal practice of lynching; fascinating short bio of jazz icon Billie Holiday; excellent source list.

 

Overview

A song about lynching? The very concept is nearly as shocking today, even in our violence-inured society, as it must have been when Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The story of how that performance came about makes for a bold, brave book that handles a difficult subject with extraordinary grace, neither flinching nor dramatizing, but simply allowing history to speak for itself. And oh my, does it ever.

Throughout the book, author Gary Golio maintains a strong, direct voice that propels us through the text. He lets us know, on every page, that Billie Holiday was no ordinary woman. Without doubt, she was a singer of rare talent, but that was only the beginning. A fire burned in Billie, making her a force for justice: “Billie wasn’t going to scrub floors like her mother. She had a plan to be somebody.”

As her story reveals, Billie’s life was a gauntlet of misfortunes and challenges. She faced desertion by her father, a traumatic assault, even time spent in jail at the impossibly young age of 14. Perhaps life’s experiences helped her gain the courage and grit needed to succeed in an entertainment world still dominated by white performers. Gifted and determined, Billie grew to be one of the greatest singers of all time, revered by musicians of every background. And she retains that status today.

Billie Holiday’s soulful voice and interpretive genius made her the perfect choice to perform “Strange Fruit.” And Golio makes it clear that Billie was singled out for this role. The song was written by a Jewish high school teacher and song writer, Abel Meeropol, who personally performed it for Holiday. While the song may have been a gift to Billie, it was a gift that came with strings. She sang it for audiences who understandably cringed at its unapologetic lyrics. Most fell silent. Some walked out. That first performance took a raw courage few singers could have summoned. Yet through sheer will and talent, Billie drove this unlikely song to fame. It was a triumph for her, and for the black community.

Golio’s book is tight and concise—like a spring-loaded poem. Every word carries weight. I read it several times (It’s not the kind of book you can read once), and each time the emotional impact was profound. The events triggering the writing of this song are stark, provocative, and immeasurably sad. But the book’s overall message is one of inspiration. Who would think one song, or one singer, could make such a difference in the American landscape? Yet the reverberations are felt to this day.

In the end, Strange Fruit is not only a rich biographical slice of Billie Holiday’s life, but also an homage to courage. The courage of entrepreneur Barney Josephson, who created a space for black entertainers to perform—and people of all ethnicities to hear them. The courage of Abel Meeropol who wrote a song to wake complacent Americans up. And above all, the courage of a legendary singer who risked everything—her career, her freedom, her very life—to make people face the truth. Golio’s beautiful and haunting book, like the song it’s named for, is a bravura performance.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Strange Fruit is a daring  book on a controversial topic. Listeners and readers must be prepared to discuss highly sensitive topics with empathy and openness. With that in mind, read the book on your own first, more than once. Then decide if you feel it is most appropriate for a small-group discussion or for sharing with the whole class. Clearly, this is a book that cries out for discussion and response. Encourage students to write and talk about the important and timely issues the book raises, making sure to give them the background needed to do so with understanding and perspective.

Background. In two parts . . .

Part 1: Billie Holiday . . . Just who was Billie Holiday? The bio at the end of the book, accented by a striking photo of “Lady Day” wearing her signature gardenias, is a good place to begin. Before sharing it, though, ask how many of your students have heard of Billie Holiday or heard her sing? Her fan base is so expansive even now that many parents or grandparents may have recordings they would be willing to share with your class. You can also find numerous online recordings of Billie’s most popular songs, including “It Had to Be You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “God Bless the Child,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Porgy,” “Body and Soul,” and dozens more. Listen to a few selections together, and ask students what words they would use to describe Holiday’s voice and style. Even the most successful musicians, including people like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, viewed Billie Holiday as unique in her talent. Why do your students think that might be?

Part 2: Civil rights . . . The story of “Strange Fruit” will take on new meaning for students acquainted with black history, the origins of jazz, and race relations during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. To set the stage (and prior to sharing the book), you might ask individual students, or teams of two, to do some preliminary research on any one of the following topics (or others you consider significant), and to share their findings with the class:

  • Race relations in America during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Protest songs in American history
  • Jim Crow laws and their impact on black Americans
  • The Great Migration
  • The Ku Klux Klan
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
  • The origin of Black History Month
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture American jazz
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Lynching*

*The practice of lynching has been outlawed in the U.S., but as author Gary Golio notes in “What Happened Next,” it took an unbelievable amount of time for this to happen—until 2005.

The online history of lynching is both horrifying and graphic, so you must decide how deeply you want to engage students in this topic. Author Gary Golio’s short epilogue, “What Happened Next” (in the book’s back matter) provides an excellent and concise summary of lynching’s dark history and the impact of “Strange Fruit” on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. For many classrooms, this summary will be sufficient. For mature readers who wish to go further, it may be enlightening to look up the image that inspired “Strange Fruit.” It’s a photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, immediately following their violent execution. It was this photo that purportedly pushed writer/teacher Abel Meeropol to take such a strong and public stand against the inhumane practice of lynching.

The poetry behind the song. “Strange Fruit” was originally written as a poem, and before listening to Holiday sing it (and this is a must), it can be helpful to discuss it as poetry. As you’ll see, the lyrics are printed in a large font toward the end of the book. Read it aloud while showing it on a document projector, and then give students a chance to discuss it with partners or in small groups before opening a general discussion. Here are a few questions for them to think about—and please add your own to this list:

  • What is your initial response to these lyrics?
  • What is the overall mood of this poem?
  • What does the word “pastoral” mean?
  • Why does the writer use the word “gallant” in the expression “gallant South”?
  • How does the writer want us to feel?
  • What is the significance of the word “fruit” in this context?

After discussing the lyrics, listen to Billie Holiday’s rendition. Author Gary Golio talks about Billie’s “expressive” face when she sang this song for the first time. He says she looked “tortured” and her voice sounded like “a cry of pain.” Though we cannot, unfortunately, witness that initial performance, do you and your students hear and see some of this stress in the online version? After listening to her performance, Share Abel Meeropol’s quotation about Billie Holiday that appears with her photo at the end of the book. Did he choose the right singer to share his message? Why?

Illustrations that speak to us. Strange Fruit is brilliantly illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, who uses sweeping strokes, erratic lines, and blended colors to capture the flavor of jazz itself. Notice her attention to facial expressions. Even when other details are lost in the stir of color, we can almost read the minds of the characters on these pages. Notice too how the colors change—from bright and splashy in some scenes to dark and somber in others. How does this shift enhance the message?

The painting of Billie in a yellow dress at the opening of the book shows her virtually blending into the scene, becoming one with the music. What is the artist’s intent here—and how does it fit with the theme of the book?

Mixed responses to “Strange Fruit.” Singer Tony Bennett called the song “magnificent” (David Margolick, nytimes.com, Running Press). The New York Times dubbed it the “song of the century,” and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. Other artists have recorded it—including Nina Simone and Annie Lennox. It has inspired novels and films, and is still widely used in college and public school classrooms.

Yet, response to the song has not been universally positive. Look carefully at the faces in the illustration of Holiday’s first tentative performance at a Harlem gathering. What moods or emotional responses does artist Charlotte Riley-Webb capture here?

“Strange Fruit” reached 16th place on the music charts following its release in 1939, yet many radio stations refused to play it. Why do you think this was—and what message did their refusal send? Discuss this with your students.

What’s the book’s core message? Obviously, Billie Holiday shared a song that set America on edge. In recounting that story, how is author Gary Golio hoping we’ll respond as readers? Ask your students if they can sum up the message of the book in a single line. Record their responses and discuss them. Though their responses may vary, together they will create a larger truth.

Organization: Beginning right smack in the middle. Bio pieces typically open with the subject’s date and place of birth—but that cliché simply wouldn’t do for this book. Instead, Golio previews his lead with a quotation from Holiday herself: “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” These words set the stage for the actual opening line: “This time, Billie’d had enough.” And bang: We find ourselves in the midst of a volatile argument. What’s the argument about? Who’s going to win? Questions like these keep readers reading. Opening in the middle of things is a good strategy to share with students. Why? Because the most important part of any story rarely begins with a hero’s birth. Openings need to give readers something exciting to chew on. Background almost never does that. Action and controversy nearly always do.

Voice Collage. For years, this has been one of my favorite activities for teaching the concept of voice. It’s simple in concept, but the results are remarkable, and students of all ages are surprised by the drama it generates. Strange Fruit, with its vibrant characters, is a perfect book to initiate this exercise.

After reading Strange Fruit, invite students individually to choose a role they would like to assume for a short piece of original writing. Be sure every key role you identify is assumed by at least one student. Possibilities for this book might include—

  • Billie Holiday
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Billie’s mother
  • Barney Josephson
  • Any player in the band
  • Any member of the audience
  • Any other role you feel is significant: _________________

Have students/writers focus on one moment from the book. I might choose Billie’s first performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society. Ask students to write about this moment as if they were reflecting on it at the end of the day, and recording their heartfelt thoughts and feelings in a personal journal. They should write in an open, honest style—but in the voice of the role they have chosen. Each writer must imagine him- or herself as that person. Allow about ten minutes for this writing. (Students typically ask for more time, but you don’t want the pieces to grow too long.)

When they finish, have them divide their writing into two parts—at whatever point feels right. There is no “correct” way to do this. The purpose is simply to create two parts that will be read separately—and they do not need to be identical in length. Have writers indicate the division with a slash mark: /

Then ask volunteers, one person for each role, to perform their pieces aloud, read-around style: all the Part 1’s first, then (without pause) all the Part 2’s. Readers should NOT announce which role they are portraying. That should be obvious from the writing itself, and it dampens the theatrical effect if people make announcements. Imagine an actor turning to the audience and saying, “I’m Macbeth, by the way.”

Prepare to hear some very strong voice in the writing, and talk about that. You’ll notice another benefit, too. Voice collage takes writers to a deeper understanding of the characters involved in this or any book—their motives, reactions, joys and fears. Role playing through writing is a powerful way of interpreting text from multiple perspectives.

“The power of a protest song.” The subtitle of this book is significant. After all, “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem. Then Abel Meeropol set it to music. How do your students see the impact of this transformation? In other words, could a poem be just as powerful as a song? Or do songs have a power all their own?

Have any of your students ever sung a protest song? What is a protest song anyway? Look up “protest songs” online to assemble a list. Some titles may be songs your students would not even have recognized as “protest” songs. Choose one to perform as a class, and talk about how the very act of singing makes us feel. Why does music have such a strong influence on us?

Do you have musicians or poets in your class? If any of your students have written protest songs or poems, this would be a good time to perform them!

Speaking through the arts. Art is a compelling vehicle for nonviolent protest. Singer Billie Holiday—along with Abel Meeropol—used music to take a strong and important stand, and generations later, Billie’s voice still speaks to us. In what other ways can artists speak out against prejudice of any kind? Take time to research this with your students, seeing how many songs, paintings, sculptures, plays, films, speeches, or other forms of protest you can uncover. Make a list, book, or display of the results.

Some of us are singers, too. Or artists, dancers, actors, writers, or poets. Create a class collection of poems, essays, paintings, picture books, videos, podcasts, skits, or recordings that speak out against prejudice. That collection celebrates your students’ own courage and creativity.

 

About the Author . . .gary-golio

Gary Golio is the author of four nonfiction books about American musical legends, among them Bird and Diz an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow (reviewed here on Gurus), which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrator Javaka Steptoe. Gary also wrote Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year in four categories, and When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan—also a multi-award winner.

Currently, Gary lives in the Hudson Valley, with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich. When he’s not writing or painting, Gary visits schools and is happy to share not only thoughts on art and writing—but music too! He plays guitar, both electric and acoustic. “I’m a pretty good musician and an engaging speaker,” he says. “I loved to make kids laugh, and use humor to teach and entertain.” To arrange a school visit with Gary, or gather more information about his books, please contact him at www.garygolio.com

Coming Up on Gurus . . . insects

A big thank you to all the writers who have sent (or will be sending) books to review here on Gurus. I appreciate the trust you have placed in me, as well as the opportunity to take a deeper look at your extraordinary work—and share it with our teacher audience. Please keep those books coming! And please invite friends to visit Gurus also—where shortly I’ll be reviewing Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever (and it truly is) by celebrated nonfiction writer Sneed B. Collard. In the meantime . . .

 

A Book Recommendation for Your Classroom

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. 2017. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

This space is normally reserved for books I recommend to adult readers, but this time I had to makeone-last-word2 space for an exceptional new release. As a long-time fan of Nikki Grimes, I was delighted to discover her brilliant new book One Last Word, a compilation of poems from Harlem Renaissance poets—who were at their peak just when singer Billie Holiday was reaching hers. This gorgeous and thought provoking book is an ideal complement to Strange Fruit.

Grimes’ collection showcases the work of Jean Toomer, Clara Ann Thompson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes, and others. Poems like “Calling Dreams,” “We Wear the Mask” and “Mother to Son” speak of the strength and determination through which black Americans have overcome the most extreme hardships. The poems would be inspirational enough in their own right—but it gets better. This stirring anthology is enhanced by the illustrations of such artists as Frank Morrison, Brian Pinkney, Javaka Steptoe, Ebony Glenn, and Nikki Grimes herself.

What makes One Last Word such a masterpiece, though, is Grimes’ inclusion of something called Golden Shovel poetry. In her introductory “Poetry Form,” Grimes explains this approach in her own words: “The idea of a Golden Shovel poem is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original.” Grimes uses the following illustration to show how to place the chosen words

in

the

right

margin

Then, the challenge is to write a new poem, each line of which ends with one of the identified  words. Sound easy enough, right? It’s not! I urge you to try it—and of course, have your students try it, too. That way, you’ll be even more appreciative of Nikki Grimes’ genius. She creates a Golden Shovel poem for every Renaissance poem in this book. What’s more, her poems expand the themes of the originals. Now that’s a feat—from someone who is a poet at heart. Combine this book with Golio’s Strange Fruit for an incredible unit on black history and civil rights.

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Thank you for stopping by. Come often, and tell friends about our posts. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom. 2014. Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

Ages: Aimed at first through fourth, though the book could be used with older students as a springboard for research and a model for writing

Special Features: A detailed glossary with one-paragraph entries focused on each featured animal.

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Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look The Way They Do. 2015. Written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Unpaginated.

Genre: Nonfiction, science, picture book

Ages: Aimed at first through fourth, though the book could be used with older students as a springboard for research and a model for writing

Special Features: A visual glossary of each featured “creature”—scaled silhouettes, wild population range maps, diet information.

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About the Authors: I hope you are already familiar with both the many books by Steve Jenkins (just Steve) and his collaborations with Robin Page. Here are just a few titles to remind you or possibly introduce you to this amazing team of authors and illustrators.

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For more information about their work, be sure to visit them at www.stevejenkinsbooks.com.

Summary—How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom

If you are familiar with Steve and Robin’s books, then you know they love animals of all kinds—ALL KINDS—not just the familiar or the friendly or the cute and cuddly. They embrace the weird, spiny, slimy fringe dwellers of the animal kingdom, as well. And they love to get up close and personal with their subjects—zooming in on beaks, tails, feet, movement, habits, habitat, food, and so on. And, they love to help readers understand the fascinating ways these animals solve the day-to-day survival problems they face—scrounging a meal, avoiding becoming a meal, finding/building homes, the ins and outs of dating (or just getting yourself noticed) in the animal world. All by itself, the title of this book is enough to entice readers to check it out. Who wouldn’t want to know how to swallow a pig? Once inside, this book speaks directly to “you,” the reader, offering clear, step-by-step directions, from the animal experts themselves, on some pretty important survival skills. The animals are the teachers, guiding “you” through each phase of, say, building a dam like a beaver, spinning a web like a barn spider, or defending yourself like an armadillo. The animal “voices” are direct, sincere, and knowledgeable, while injecting a bit of humor to connect their behaviors to the human world. In the section on “How to Woo a Ewe Like a Mountain Sheep,” which involves a bit of head bashing, step #5 advises the reader to “Take a break. If your skull is as thick as a mountain sheep’s, you won’t suffer any permanent damage. And if the other guy backs down, you have a new girlfriend.” And, as in all Steve Jenkins books, the cut and torn paper collage art is both accurate and evocative, drawing readers into each animal’s world, and leading them through each step.

Summary—Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do

This book helps to answer the classic younger child/student (or perpetually curious) question, “Why?” While it doesn’t provide the definitive responses to any/all “Why?” questions that may arise, it does help with some, especially those that pertain to the interesting physical features of the amazing assortment of animals included in this book. The authors have included the familiar—giraffe, hamster, panda—and some representatives from the fringe dwellers of the animal kingdom I spoke of in the last summary—babirusa, axolotl, thorny devil, blobfish. Rather than talk about the animals behind their backs, the authors have gone right to the source, posing the kind of direct, in your face questions (that kids are known to ask) directly to the animals themselves. Each question is asked politely using an (almost) advice column letter format—Dear ____, allowing the animals being questioned to respond directly. Their short, specific answers guide readers to an understanding of the “function” behind the “form.” There’s an important reason why each animal looks or is equipped a certain way. Here’s an example (image is NOT from the book):

Dear mole rat:                                   

Have you ever

thought about getting braces?

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Not really. I dig tunnels through the earth with my teeth. Fortunately they are ouside my lips, so I can burrow without getting dirt in my mouth.

The illustrations are large and each creature’s eyes are leveled right at the reader—you can’t look away! They are personal, not confrontational. Face to face interaction is important when asking questions about appearances. It’s about curiosity and understanding, not making fun.

Note: I’ve paired these books together for review purposes. I’m not suggesting that you must use them together, though you easily could. For me, they are clearly connected by their science related content, as instructional models for nurturing student understanding of the trait of voice, and by the kinds of writing they might be used to launch with your students.

In the following instructional suggestions and commentary, I’ll refer to How to Swallow a Pig as HTSAP, and Creature Features as CF.

In the Classroom: How to Swallow a Pig

1. Reading. As we always suggest, read the book(s) more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. You will want to be confident about pronouncing the names of any animals that may be new to you. A document camera will help students really explore the book’s artwork, but an up close reading circle will work, especially for the first read through.

Note: In my mind, both HTWAP and CF are the kinds of books I want to use as launch pads for student writing. Because of that, I would be selective and limit what I shared with students from each book. If I want students to imitate or emulate the “Step-by-step/How-to” writing in HTWAP, or the “Advice column/letter” writing format in CF, I need to be careful not to over share examples from the book. In my experience, it’s easier for student writers to generate their own ideas if they have not been inundated with example after example. I think in some students’ minds, seeing and hearing all the examples from the book closes the door on the possibility of other ideas. Yes, examples and exemplars are important. I’m just suggesting that you select a few examples to share from the book as a way to get students excited about coming up with their own ideas. I really hope this makes sense.

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2. Anticipatory Set. (Terminology flashback/tip-of-the-hat to Madeline Hunter’s Instructional Theory Into Practice—ITIP! This was a big deal in the early eighties when I first became a teacher.) (You could also call this section Activating Prior Knowledge.) I am doing some substitute teaching this year, mostly at my neighborhood elementary school. I recently subbed in a fifth grade class and brought HTSAP with me. In this classroom, the students are seated in groups of four or five. I handed a blank sheet of paper to each group and had them quickly decide who would be group recorder and who would be group spokesperson. (These students are used to working in groups with each student taking on a role.) I asked them to lean in and brainstorm collectively about crows, a very common bird in our part of the world. The recorder’s job was to write down the group’s ideas as quickly as they could. We then pooled the knowledge of the class by having spokespersons share while I recorded on the white board. This group knew quite a bit, including the fact that crows are highly intelligent, and that a group of crows is called a “murder,” as in “a murder of crows.” We chewed on this information a bit and then jumped into the activity. I posed this to the group: “OK—each of you is now a crow—a very hungry crow. You have found a hazelnut, and you want to eat it. Using what you know about crows and all your crow capabilities, how are you—remember, you’re a crow—going to crack open that hazelnut?” I asked them to think about their plan, drawing pictures if necessary, and then turn their plan into step-by-step directions that another crow/person could follow. Their steps needed to be numbered and described using clear sentences. By the way, we established the premise that crows lacked either the beak or talon strength to crack this tough nut.

I gave them a pretty tight time frame to work, emphasizing that this was an exercise/quick-write/think/write to get them warmed up. We did some quick sharing and comparing of their nut-cracking ideas and then jumped right into the book’s passage, “How to Crack a Nut Like a Crow.” (You’ll need to read the book for the full story, but let’s say that dropping the nut from a high vantage point was a common theme in the students’ writing, but the book takes that idea to another level, showing just how smart crows are.) The students were quite impressed with the ingenuity of the crows’ process outlined in the book. They were also pleased that their own ideas, without the benefit of research, were so closely connected to what the book described.

3. Layout/Verbs/Colons/Voice. Before sharing any more from the book, I think it’s important to have students notice some important choices the writers made in the book’s creation. This is especially important if you are going to use the book as a model for student writing.

Layout—Help your students to notice how each How-to entry is put together. They begin with a title, How to (Hunt, Build, Sew, etc.) Like a (animal’s name), and 3-5 sentences introducing the animal and focusing readers on its specific survival skill. The How-to steps are numbered and “headlined” with a short, direct, command phrase highlighting the step’s action. These headlines are followed by 2-3 detail sentences offering important suggestions, cautions, and bits of critical information to help clarify the intentions of each command to readers. Here’s an example with just the first step included:

(BTW–the image is NOT from the book.)

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How to Sew Like a Tailorbird

The tailorbird gets its name from the ingenious way it makes its nest. A female tailorbird constructs the nest, but her male companion may help her collect material for it. Here’s how it’s done:

1) Choose a leaf.

You’ll need a large green leaf. It’s best to choose one in a safe, out-of-the-way spot.

One crucial part of the layout is the blending of text with art/illustrations. Each How-to carefully blends text and art, providing both a visual set of directions and support for important (and potentially new) vocabulary.

Verbs—Action words are in the spotlight in these How-to pieces. This makes perfect sense, of course, because the purpose of this type of writing is to demonstrate how to do something! Strong, active verbs abound in this book—wrap, rub, woo, collect, mimic, spin, organize, snip, lunge, hunker, and so on. Specific action descriptors are critical in How-to writing. “Get some sticks…, make a nest…, put the parts together…” These kinds of vague verbs will only lead to confusion for readers.

Colons—No, I’m not talking about intestines! Punctuation is my point! Make sure students notice how colons have been used to end many of the introductory paragraphs and segue into the numbered steps. The colon can be a mysterious bit of punctuation for students, so I like to point them out whenever I can.

Voice—This is not the easiest of concepts for younger student writers to grasp. That is why I think of myself as a voice nurturer more than a voice teacher. The writing in this book is informational but not encyclopedic. The authors have not simply listed all they know about an animal’s specific survival skill; they’ve given us more than just the cold, hard facts. As readers, we feel confidence in the writers because of their choices—as experts, they’ve made the decision about what to include (and what to leave out) and how to help us focus on what is most important. We can tell they know what they’re talking about, and they are speaking right to us—“Rear up on your hind legs…Hover in the water with your arms trailing behind you…” That’s us—the reader—they’re telling what to do, and we feel connected to both the authors and the animals. When readers feel the presence of a person behind the words, especially important in informational writing, it’s easier to be more engaged with the writer’s content. That’s voice!

4. Research and Imitate. It’s time to share a bit more of the book, but as I suggested, not the entire book—yet. Now that they have a taste for what the book is about, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to try their hands at imitating the format. That means they’ll need to select their own animal to research. The focus would be on survival skills—what does a particular animal do well, or do what no other animal does, to find food, avoid being eaten, create a home, get noticed by a potential mate? Students will need to do enough research to become an “expert” on their chosen animal’s skill. The book’s format begins with a brief introductory paragraph about the animal, giving readers a bit of background/context specific to their animal’s skill. What can you say about your animal in only a few sentences to help the reader zoom in? Next up is the How-to part–breaking down the steps the animal takes to perform this skill. Show students one of the entries you shared to remind them (as described in #3 above) about the headlines, follow-up sentences, descriptive verbs, voice—speak directly to your readers—you are the animal now, teaching your amazing skill. And don’t forget the illustrations. Students could create their own drawings or select images found in their research.

5.Write Your Own Glossary Entry. This book includes a wonderful glossary on each featured animal. Students could follow up their How-to pieces by writing a one-paragraph glossary entry for their animal. These are not full-blown “reports.” As “experts,” they would need to decide what else do curious readers need to know? Take a look, as a class, at one or two of the book’s glossary paragraphs. What types of information did the writers decide to share—physical characteristics/dimensions, habitat specifics, predators/prey, etc.?

6.What’s your “survival” skill? I think it would be fun to ask students to create a How-to piece focusing on a strength of their own—what is one of their “survival” skills? This is where you could write with your students, modeling the reflective self-talk necessary to generate an idea. It’s not about being the best at something; it’s about what you do well to “survive.” It could be something you cook—How to roast a golden brown marshmallow like Mr. Hicks, How to load the dishwasher like Mr. Hicks, etc.

7. Behind the Scenes—How this book was made. There is a wonderful “note” from Steve Jenkins on the Amazon.com page for How to Swallow a Pig about the process behind creating this book. It includes the start—research and sketching, adding the words, the art from sketch to final piece, layout choices, printing the pages, and putting together the final book. It’s really his How-to about his special skill.

imgres-6“That’s right—I’m a blobfish!”

images-4“I’m a babirusa!”

In the Classroom: Creature Features

1. Reading/Sharing. Rather than repeat myself, refer to section #1 above, including my suggestions about sharing only parts of the book if you’re going to use it as a springboard for student writing. This is the kind of book that you could “share” all the way through by only showing the pictures, giving students a chance to stare these creatures in their strange faces. You could even ask them to take “notes,” keeping track of what they notice first about each creature’s face.

2. Organizational Structure—Advice Column “Letter.” This book is all about looks, specifically the strange (at least to us) physical features of creatures found in the animal kingdom—like the blobfish and the babirusa pictured above. The fact is, though we humans may laugh, cringe, look away, or even make fun of the way some animals look, these creatures’ features have a purpose directly connected to the animals’ survival. Here’s what one of the passages looks like. (The image is NOT from the book.)

Dear mandrill:

Why is your nose so colorful?

imgres-8

My bright red and blue nose tell other mandrills that I’m a full-grown male monkey, so they’d better not mess with me. My rear end is pretty colorful too, but I’d rather not talk about that.

The opportunity for student imitation (of the format, not mandrills) is pretty obvious. I would suggest dipping into students’ prior knowledge about the letter format. What do they know about greetings? What do they know about closings? (Even though the book’s “letters” aren’t closed and signed, I would want students to include these in their imitations to add a personal touch) Why do we write letters? Where can you find “advice” letters? (It would be helpful to provide students with a couple examples.)

At this point, students could do some research on a strange looking creature of their own choosing. Their choices don’t have to be creatures from the farthest corners of the world. They might choose a familiar animal—e.g. a lion—to ask about a distinctive feature—why do you have such a furry mane? Their choices don’t have to be limited to the animal kingdom—they could choose an insect or even a strange plant. This is about the research—posing a “why” question, and becoming and becoming enough of an expert to answer the “why” question.

I would ask my student writers to make two alterations to the book’s format. I think the students need to both close and “sign” their letters. This may mean doing a bit of brainstorming about polite ways to close a letter that asks such a personal question—Sincerely, Yours truly, Appreciatively, etc. It’s up to you if you want your students to try the traditional, anonymous method of finishing off advice letters—Yours truly, Panda Lover, Sincerely, Manely Curious from Maine, etc. In turn, I suggest the responses from the animals be written in letter form, complete with greeting—Dear Manely Curious from Maine—and closing—Respectfully, The King of the Jungle, etc.

One other twist would be to have the animals write to the students. What kinds of questions would animals have about us—what we look like or what we wear. Students would need to ask questions of themselves—Why do I wear glasses? Why do I like to wear a hat? Why do you wear shoes? This would give a student who wears glasses, for example, an opportunity to answer the question they’ve probably been asked before, “Why do you have what looks like an extra set of eyes?”

3. Voice/Responding to “Why?”Letter writing is a great format to be able to talk about and emphasize voice. Letters are often personal communication between two people who know each other well. In this case, students are writing to (and from) animals “strangers.” The questions being asked are about looks and need to be asked respectfully. The responses need to be respectful, as well as honest and informative. Students need to make sure they are answering (completely) the question being asked. “Why” questions are different than “what” or “how” questions. “Why” questions require clear, detailed explanations/reasons. “Because” is not an informative answer. (Unless you’re an exasperated parent of a teenager and reasonable, rational explanations aren’t working.)

4. Social Skills.The questions and responses in this book offer a chance to discuss the natural curiosity humans have about other humans and what you do when you have questions about the way someone looks, speaks, dresses, or behaves. Is it OK to stare? Is it OK to point and speak—“You have a big nose!” Is it OK to blurt out a question—“Why do you have a scarf covering your head?”

You and your students could do some role-playing, taking turns being one of the animals from the book or the questioner. The blobfish, pictured above, is a pretty strange looking creature. But if you were a blobfish, how would you feel being asked about your looks, especially if someone isn’t respectful. What is the best way to handle finding answers to our curiosity inspired questions?

5. Behind the Scenes—How this book was made. Just like with HTSAP, there is a wonderful “note” from Steve Jenkins on the Amazon.com page for Creature Features about the process behind creating this book. It includes the start—research and sketching, adding the words, the art from sketch to final piece, layout choices, printing the pages, and putting together the final book.

6. Illustrations—Cut/Torn Paper Collages. I’m not an artist or an expert on student art projects, but I have done cut/torn paper collage pieces with students. Remember, it’s about the process not the beauty of the final products. I always kept a scrap paper box in my room for bits and bobs of paper—construction, wrapping, wall, tissue, etc. Having lots of textures and colors does make this “easier” and more fun. I just think it would be important for students to try Steve’s process to gain that “insider’s” level of appreciation for all the effort behind the stunning final products.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

IMG_2454 (1)Coming up next, Jeff will offer a short reflection (with classroom suggestions) on the September 14, 2015, New Yorker article by writer John McPhee, “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” Student writers often think more in terms of “What do I want to write about and what should I say?” Author McPhee offers a different perspective for writers, young and otherwise, working on their craft.

World traveler Vicki should be back on the continent soon, and I’m sure she’s been reading a great book or two that she will want to share with you.

Oh my goodness—it’s November! We hope your year is off to a great start and running smoothly. And we hope you are or will be a regular visitor here at Gurus throughout the school 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.

What is it?

Voice is passion, energy, zest, commitment, confidence, individuality–and more. Peter Elbow (in Writing with Power, p. 299) says that “writing with voice is writing into which someone has breathed.” He adds that such writing “has the power to make you understand and pay attention.” Voice, in other words, is the something that keeps you reading, the quality that makes you care about the message. Writing with voice stands out from other writing. It speaks to you, sometimes remaining in your heart and mind forever.

To the extent that voice is an extension of personality–and this is certainly part of it–we might say that it can’t be helped. It just spills out. Some people are humorous or outspoken by nature, and those qualities emerge in their writing. But voice is also audience awareness. Think about it. Don’t you know people who converse, really, as if no one were listening? They don’t read body language or facial expressions, they don’t let anyone else in. On and on they go. Some people write that same way. But people who write–or converse–with voice behave entirely differently. They tune in, look deep into your eyes, “read” you continually, and make constant adjustments based on whether you’re getting it, loving it. So as much as anything, voice is sensitivity, concern, thoughtfulness. No wonder voice is such a gift to readers. And as writers, we can–all of us, not just the comics in the crowd–develop acute awareness of our readers, their likes and dislikes, their fears or concerns, their wishes, their interests. Once we develop this awareness, we write right to readers, almost as if they were there in the room with us, and the result? Voice.

Does voice matter?

Incredibly. Writing that lacks any voice at all is dull, spiritless, nearly impossible to force yourself through. It’s psyllium fiber with nary a drop of water. Voiceless writing is rarely appreciated, published, remembered, recommended, or loved. So then, why isn’t the word VOICE on posters everywhere? Why isn’t a call for more voice in our students’ writing screaming at us from the Common Core Standards? This is a very important question. Because these days, if something isn’t emphasized in the Standards, people don’t want to spend time on it. But not everything that’s important can be captured in standards. That isn’t the job of the standards. It’s the job of the standards to define the essentials of writing success, the things we cannot do without, the things we have a right to expect of ourselves and our students.

Remember your old logic class? If A, then B. If it’s in the Standards (A), it’s important (B). That’s probably true. That doesn’t mean you can turn it around: if B, then A. No–not necessarily. In other words, just because it’s important (B), that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be found in the Standards.

Some things that are special cannot be required or demanded–especially not of everyone. Think about the books that have been your own favorites. Why did you love them? When you told someone about them, what did you say? Chances are, you did not say that the main idea was clear and well developed. You probably did not say that the organization was easy to follow or that the writer used transitional words in a way that helped you link ideas. That doesn’t mean these things weren’t true–or that they weren’t important. Of course they were. But such things define the basic underpinnings of good writing. They are foundational. Writers with clear, developed ideas write in a functional way. Functional is good as a starting point, but it’s not what dreams are made of. We don’t want to get ourselves confused and think we’re aiming for the stars when we’re shooting for functional.

What you probably did say about those books you loved likely had something to do with voice. Maybe you said a particular book touched you, took you back to an experience of your own, made you laugh or cry, lived in your head for days. Maybe you said you couldn’t put it down, you couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Or you bought a copy for a friend. If you’ve ever said any of those things about a book or any piece of writing, you’re a fan of voice.

And by the way, one aspect of voice is noted in the Common Core Standards, loud and clear–and that aspect is audience awareness. We cannot very well demand of students that they write (routinely) things that touch us, papers we cannot bear to put down or want to copy for friends. (Doesn’t mean we don’t wish for such writing.) But we can ask them to define their audience, to think about their age, experience, knowledge of the topic at hand, interests, informational needs, and so on.

How do we teach it?

Some things about voice cannot be taught directly–only encouraged. Some people, for instance, are naturally funny or disarmingly honest or insightful. Such qualities tend to translate into strong voice. We can’t have lessons in honesty and humor, or courage and insight, of course, but we encourage such qualities if we talk about them in a positive way, comment on them when we see them in students’ work, and read aloud from literature that reflects those qualities.

Reading aloud is perhaps the BEST way to teach students what voice is, to show that we appreciate it, and to provide models of how other writers have achieved voice. Those books you thought of a moment ago–the ones that touched you most? Read from those. I have countless favorites–here are just a handful:

  • Matilda and Boy by Roald Dahl
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Extreme Animals and What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies
  • China Boy by Gus Lee 
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen
  • Sing a Song of Tuna Fish by Esme Raji Codell
  • The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I could easily list 50 more–but this list provides some sense of the variety among books with voice. They come from no one particular genre and are directed at no particular age group. They’re fiction and nonfiction, comical and wholly serious, written for pre-schoolers and for mature adults. But they all have one thing in common: they are enormously fun to read aloud, and engaging to listen to.

Here’s another tip: Write letters. The audience is immediate and built in. Nothing builds audience awareness faster than letter writing–especially when the letters are written to various audiences for various purposes.

Model. Show your writers how you put voice into your own writing. Start with a flat piece like this: I had a fun time at the beach. Show how to add voice by weaving in one specific detail: I couldn’t stop wondering whether that man with the sunburned back made it home in one piece.

Remember that voice isn’t just one thing–it’s many things. It comprises precise word choice, detail, well-crafted sentences. All these things contribute to voice. So when you teach students to write with detail, or use strong verbs, or craft sentences in unusual interesting ways, you are teaching voice. Voice is an umbrella quality that spans many nuances of writing.

Voice is also about saying what’s on your mind. A teacher friend of mine tells her students, “Say it like you mean it.” Do that. Don’t write, You might consider becoming a vegetarian. Instead, write something like, If you cannot bear to kill your own pigs and chickens, you should stick to mustard greens and Brussels sprouts. (If you’re NOT a vegetarian, you can come up with your own version–from a different perspective. Just mean what you say.)

And never forget the importance of having students find their own personally important topics. It’s very hard to get excited about someone else’s topic. Sometimes, you need to do that–that’s life. But it’s almost never easy. And there’s nothing like finding your own question to answer, digging up details no one else ever heard of–and sharing them in a voice that says, “Listen to this!”

Final thought . . .

Teaching (or coaching or encouraging) voice is important for another reason–and this is almost sacred. It shows respect for the individual, for his or her spirit, culture, ethnicity, and values. Almost everything else we teach in writing homogenizes students. Conventions are standardized, after all. And we are obsessed with main ideas, supporting details, transitional words (which we can list, and often do), paragraphs that have three points and do not wander from the topic, and so much more. When everyone writes with these criteria in mind, their writing begins to sound more or less alike. We decry formula, but the truth is, if we really were serious about eluding formula, we’d encourage every drop of voice our students would award us. Voice is the quality, more than any other, that makes their writing distinctive–even unique. To shut down voice is to shut down the writer. In Writing to Change the World (p. 42) Mary Pipher says, “Voice is everything that we are, all that we have observed, the emotional chords that are uniquely ours . . . ” Precisely. Voice is the most important reason we read–and so, the most important reason we write.

Resources

If you’d like to read more about voice, let me recommend two resources (only one of which is mine): The 9 rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel (the final chapter is devoted to voice, but I discuss voice throughout); and Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano. Tom writes in a straightforward, highly engaging manner about a topic that is clearly dear to his heart. His is one of my favorite resource books of all time, and my copy bears the highlights and sticky notes to prove it.  

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Watch for the second part of Jeff’s essay on the “Rabbit Hole”–coming up with writing ideas. And coming up soon, we’ll review George Hillocks’ new book Teaching Argument Writing. Please visit us often . . . Give every child a voice. For the BEST in trait-based PD, with plenty of emphasis on voice, contact us at 503-579-3034.