Tag Archive: teaching writing



Do you love nonfiction? Teach it to students? If so, here’s some good news just for you. Today, Heinemann put our new book on their website, and my co-author Sneed B. Collard and I could not be more excited. The book is titled Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons. The book makes its official debut August 31, but I wanted to give Gurus followers a short preview. I think the title tells it all, but here are some highlights just in case . . .

The premise is simple. Sneed Collard, author of more than 80 books for young people—many of them nonfiction—gets inside his own head to analyze the strategies that have made him one of the most successful authors for young people ever.

My part? To translate that insight into lessons you can share with your nonfiction writers grades four through eight—and honestly, beyond. Sneed’s perceptive and highly teachable ideas transcend grade level, and can be adapted for older writers right through college.

The book is short—just over 200 pages. Chapters are blissfully short, making it easy to zip through them, choosing the lessons you want to share with students. Oh—if you think nonfiction lessons need to be serious and intense, think again. Sneed and I had a great time putting this book together. He has a wicked sense of humor, and that shines through in every chapter. This guy knows how to make nonfiction fun. We’re not talking typical research papers here.

Sneed and I are grateful to my wonderful colleague (and recent co-author) Jeff Hicks, who will be reviewing the book on this site in August, so watch for that. Meantime, to learn more (and take advantage of some good pre-publication offers), please visit the Heinemann website: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

And happy, happy Fourth of July.


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Be a Better Writer, 2nd edition by Steve Peha, with Margot Carmichael Lester. 2016. Carrboro, NC: Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: Steve himself says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10 to 16,” but honestly, you can adapt ideas in this book for just about any grade level. It would make a terrific gift for kids heading to college—and I also recommend it as a resource for adult professional writers as well as for teachers or writing coaches.

Features: Easy to use lists, charts, and techniques for handy reference; writing samples to show what works and what doesn’t—and how revision unfolds; interviews with well-known writers who offer their wisdom and suggestions; numerous activities to use on your own or in the classroom from Day 1.

Introduction

I had a hunch I would like this book as soon as I saw the cover—and no, I don’t pay any attention to that old adage. Truth is, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. From this one with its bright colors, whimsical art, and encouraging little notes, I could tell I would be in the hands of someone who (1) probably has a sense of humor about his own writing, and (2) genuinely cares about helping writers of all ages, especially those who find writing difficult at times (and that’s most of us). Some professional resource book authors are so eager to dazzle us with their own genius that they forget how intimidating, how overwhelming writing can seem to readers. Authors with attitude always make me want to say, “Hey, pssst!! Remember us? Your audience?” After all, the underlying purpose of a resource like this should be to answer questions real writers, especially students, ask most: What should I write about? Where can I get ideas? How do I begin? How do I end? What’s a detail? How do I organize all this information I dug up in my research? Who the heck will read this and what do they care about? How do I make my writing sound more like me?

 This book answers every one of these questions, and countless others—and does so in a way that makes the information entertaining as well as easy to understand and recall. It’s not a lecture; it’s a conversation. What’s more, Steve Peha and his co-author Margot Carmichael Lester (who also happens to be Steve’s wife) have gone out of their way to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—tips on sequencing, ideas for good leads, sample endings, thoughts on transitions, guidelines for solid sentences, and more. The secret lies in the layout, which is masterful. Subheads in big—really big—print, charts, lists, and other eye catching features make it easy to take in and process volumes of information. Ever go into a store that seemed to have everything you wanted, all arranged right where you could find it? That’s how it feels to read Be a Better Writer.

The book is written right to students (or any readers looking for guidance on writing well) in a voice that’s friendly, often humorous, and always knowing. You can tell immediately that these are seasoned writers, that everything you struggle with they’ve struggled with, too. Steve is refreshingly honest about his own learning curve: “I know that for some of us, writing is hard. That’s how it was for me in school. I was good at math. I could read. But writing was a mystery, one I didn’t solve until I started helping other people solve it for themselves” (p. 4). Someone who’s fought his own writing demons gives good advice because he knows exactly what advice we’re most likely to need, from topic choice right down to dealing with those pesky commas. Steve and Margot know their stuff, and know how to make a book on writing fun to read. thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-with-background.jpg

I sat down with this book intending to read a sample chapter or two, and was immediately delighted to have the author tell me two things I never expected to hear: (1) You don’t have to read this whole book, and (2) You don’t have to read it in order. I don’t? Gee . . . It’s always a relief to get permission for something you were probably going to do anyway—like skim. While savoring this newfound freedom, I actually did read the whole book—all of it, in order, and in one sitting. Yes, it was that good. Yes, it was that engaging. And yes, you are going to love it, too.

 

Everything That Matters

Too many resource books try to cover everything. I have a few of those. They’re too big to lift, but ideal for door stops. This book thankfully takes a more discretionary approach. It concentrates, very effectively, on “what matters most.”

In the opening chapter, Steve gives us a stunning “world of writing” overview. He writes about logic, good beginnings, effective description, using easy techniques to get yourself moving when you’re stuck, applying the ingenious “what-why-how” strategy when writing an essay test, getting and using good feedback, and ways to know when you’re finished writing: in short, the “most important” issues writers encounter in their everyday lives. This big picture chapter provides the foundation for the enormously rich discussions that follow, but equally important, it offers a beginning writer assurance: Yes, you can do this. Even if you learn and use just three or four strategies from this book, Steve tells us, you’ll be a better writer. Three or four? you say to yourself—Heck, I can do that! Yes, you can, and now you’ve grasped the underlying theme of the book: making writing do-able, one strategy at a time.

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The Top 10. That first chapter and all others open with what is hands down my favorite feature: “10 Things You Need to Know Even If You Don’t Read This Chapter.” I’m certain—I’d bet on it—that you can name six writers right off the top of your head that you wish had used that approach. The “10 Things You Need to Know” opener works on so many levels. First, it gives me a quick preview of the upcoming chapter—which makes my reading infinitely more efficient. Second, it allows me to focus on the sub-topics I need most. And finally, it gives me a simple way to review later so I can recall key points or look something up.

Targeting good writing. Six of the other eight chapters cover topics that define the heart of good writing: “Better Topics,” “Better Ideas,” “Better Organization,” “Better Voice,” “Better Words,” and “Better Sentences.” The book doesn’t cover everything you ever wanted to know about conventions plus a few things you didn’t (just one more thing to love about it), but does offer excellent chapter on “Better Punctuation” that also includes an editorial nod to paragraphing and capitalization. Steve, with his characteristic sense of humor, has a good time showing how punctuation can alter meaning in even a short sentence like Herman Melville’s classic opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” (Think about it until you get your own copy; try punctuating it as many ways as you can.)

I cannot say whether this was intentional (and it doesn’t matter), but Be a Better Writer is extremely “trait friendly.” If you teach the six traits to your students, you will find this book filled with activities you can use for that purpose. But wait, there’s more . . .

The book also devotes a whole chapter to “Better Fiction,” so just in case you’re reading it not so much to teach writing as to get your own work published, here’s a chapter you’ll savor—and if you’re like me, it will have you rolling up your sleeves and revising in your head even before you finish reading it.

Organization Plus

The book is beautifully organized, and next to the confident, upbeat voice, this is the characteristic I appreciated most. The pacing is quick and lively, and chapters include recurring features that I quickly learned to look for, like these five:

Feature 1: Terrific checklists. Every chapter features an enormously useful checklist related to the subject at hand. For example, Chapter Two offers us “Your Checklist for Better Topics.” Like most writers, I am constantly in search of a good topic, so I devoured this list. Steve is particularly good at coming up with questions students can ask themselves and he embeds these into the checklist: “What ideas and details will encourage readers to follow my piece all the way to the end? What will make them feel like it was worth the time and effort they get to spend there?” (p. 35) Questions like these remind me that writing well requires us not only to think like readers but to offer our audience something in return for the gift of their time and commitment.

Feature 2: Samples—and lessons in modeling. Each chapter includes one or more writing examples, some written by Steve and many written by students. In this chapter, Steve uses a piece of his own writing, titled “My Father’s Gift,” to illustrate the difficulties inherent in “Tackling Tough Topics,” things that are just plain hard to write about because our emotions get in the way. He helps us understand how pushing ourselves into topics that make us uncomfortable forces us to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. Here’s a quick summary of Steve’s story:

Steve’s father, a man without a lot of money to spend, has given 10-year-old Steve a gift in a manila envelope, and waits eagerly for his son to open it. They are not close, and there’s a palpable tension between them. Days go by, and Steve still has not opened the gift, so has to lie when his father questions him about it. When he finally does look inside, he discovers that the envelope contains valuable photographs of his favorite team, the Washington Huskies. Even though he likes and appreciates the photos, he doesn’t safeguard them, nor does he fully acknowledge the value of the gift. Years later, needing to raise money in a hurry, he remembers the photos and decides to sell them—only to discover he has inadvertently sent them off with the trash while cleaning out his room. Realizing what he has done, and imagining how his father would react if he knew, sets off a chain of conflicting emotions that make this story of giving and receiving hard to resolve—but Steve writes a strong ending about “where giving and forgiving meet, and grace abides” (p. 52).

When I show teachers how to model writing, I encourage them to do something that doesn’t come easily to most: to think out loud, sharing the way writing unfolds in the writer’s mind. Students need to know why we begin or end a certain way, why we add a phrase or delete a word. Most teachers understand this instinctively, but somehow the act of actually sharing their thinking aloud with students feels awkward, and makes many self-conscious. That’s why I wanted to cheer when I finished the story and then read Steve’s description of his own writing process. It’s precisely the kind of sharing that helps kids understand how writing works: “I had an easy time with the beginning,” he reveals, “but it took many tries to write the ending” (p 35). He explains that he had to realize his story was about forgiveness before he could get the ending right. “When I was thinking only about the fact that my piece needed an ending, I wrote many endings, but never one that captured what I wanted to say because I hadn’t thought at all about what that was.”

There are two lessons here: One, an ending needs a message. And two, students learn so much by getting inside a working writer’s head. This book takes them there—to where the writing happens. I cannot think of another writing resource book that does this so well.

Feature 3: The Unexpected. Everyone loves surprises, and Be a Better Writer delivers. Though it has recurring features, it’s never formulaic. Chapter Two, for instance, includes a section that made me sit up and take notice: “Topic Choice When You Have No Choice.” Think “on-demand writing.”

Back in the day, when my writing assessment team and I were reading literally thousands of stories and essays for county, district, and state writing assessments, all of us wondered how it could be that though students were often writing to the very same prompt, some managed to make their writing irresistibly engaging, read-out-loud funny, or heart stoppingly moving, while others were clearly so bored it was a wonder they could push their pencils across the paper. The secret lies in learning to personalize a topic. How does a writer do that?

Try Steve’s “Topic Equation Strategy,” in which Interest + Subject = Topic. Without giving away too much of Steve’s thunder, let me say that this equation simply calls for coupling your assigned subject—say it’s climate change—with something that interests you, like whales, perhaps. Instead of writing in a broad brushstroke kind of way about climate change, you might ask, How is climate change affecting whales, and will they survive it? Will warming ocean waters disturb their migration cycle, and what will they eat if all the krill die? Now you have a topic that will keep both you and your readers awake. Solving a problem (e.g., the dreaded assigned topic) that has plagued students and teachers for generations is a stroke of genius, and for me, this solution alone makes the book worth its purchase price.

Feature 4: Interviews. Among the book’s most intriguing features are interviews with various writers of note who talk about how they became writers and offer advice to beginners in the craft. The authors chose their interviewees well; each has something memorable to say. Among my favorite moments are these lines from Luis J. Rodriguez, known for his books of memoir, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Asked why he writes, Rodriguez says, “To heal. To dance. To wake up something beastly as well as something beautiful. I write to stay alive.”

Feature 5: Activities, activities. All chapters wrap up with a list of activities you can try (as a student, or as a teacher/coach working with students), and they range from easy to challenging, quick to extended. Sometimes Steve invites us to journal a character or try transforming a telling statement to a showing one, and other times we’re asked to write a letter, experiment with organization, collect beginnings and endings, or write a piece in a whole new voice. What makes these activities so authentic and appealing is that they’re things Steve himself has tried as a writer. And as he reminds us at the beginning of the book, we do not have to do all the activities. We can pick and choose. But this is guaranteed: If we do enough of them, our writing will improve.

Miss Margot’s Role

Co-author Margot Carmichael Lester is a journalist and author. She offers her journalist’s perspective throughout the book, and it’s a great balance because by her own admission, she leans toward nonfiction and opinion writing. Like all good journalists, she knows the value of writing concisely and cutting what isn’t needed. Though she offers us many good pieces of advice throughout the book, I think this one has to be my favorite: “When I have too many details, I re-evaluate them. If a detail doesn’t support the main idea, it’s out. If it doesn’t lead people to think feel, or do what I want them to, it’s gone. If it doesn’t answer a critical question or objection from the reader, it’s toast.” I love a ruthless editor, and ruthlessness is a quality more students need to cultivate as writers. Hack away, Miss Margot (p. 73).

Hidden Gems

You may have noticed that you can always tell which resource books were worth your while because the best ones are eventually filled with highlighted passages and raggedy sticky notes. That’s because readers have highlighted, circled, underlined, and commented on the book’s hidden gems, little bits of wisdom that aren’t paraded before us in any obvious way, but just wait there tucked inside the folds of text, waiting to be discovered. Here are just a handful of the quotable moments I noticed while reading Be a Better Writer. Have a highlighter and pencil handy when you read your own copy because you will find many more moments like these:

  1.  “The key to descriptive writing is making a picture in your mind and using words and phrases that help readers make the same picture in theirs” (p. 11).
  2. “Getting feedback isn’t just finding out why some people like your writing and others don’t. It’s about getting precise information about how to improve your work” (p. 27).
  3. “Life experience is the greatest source of topic ideas you’ll ever have” (p. 33).
  4. “Think of your teachers as editors” (p. 36).
  5. “If you’re like many writers, you’ll come back to the same topics again and again” (p. 57).
  6. “Voice is the most important quality in your work because it influences all of the other qualities” (p. 157).
  7. “Draft like you talk and revise like you read” (p. 189)

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Not surprisingly, Be a Better Writer has enjoyed overwhelming popularity since its release. If you’d like a copy of your own or want more information, here are some links that will help:

 To get the book on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

http://bit.ly/babw-free-ch1

To see Steve’s newsletter:

http://bit.ly/steve-peha-newsletter

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon-author-page

Steve and Margot are offering a huge discount (40%) thru June 30 for schools ordering 25+ copies by PO.

http://bit.ly/babw-po-discount

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Jeff and I say goodbye for the summer–just for the summer!!

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We have gained many new fans over recent months, and we have you to thank! Like many of you, Jeff and I are going to take a summer break to do some traveling and spend time with our families. We will return in the fall with more reviews and thoughts about teaching writing well. Writing isn’t just our occupation—it’s our passion. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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Introduction. A few years ago, English Journal (Vol 96, No. 1, September 2006) published my article titled “In Defense of Rubrics.”  At the time, some writers and teachers felt wary about using rubrics, describing them as restrictive and inhibiting (a point of view with which I strongly disagreed and still do). Recently, some new criticisms have arisen, with one colleague going so far as to decry, “Burn your rubrics!” Seriously?

This apparent fear of domination by rubrics strikes me as a serious overreaction.  I recognize (and agree with) my colleagues’ passion for a real, personal, unrehearsed response to student writing. Every writer on earth wants that. I just don’t think that needs to be the only kind of response. I don’t even think it’s enough—usually. True, rubrics don’t tell everything, but they tell a lot. And if a rubric is well done, it offers information a student can use to see his or her writing with new eyes, and to revise with purpose. Can a comment do that? Sometimes. Not always.

My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?

Two caveats. When people have a problem with rubrics, I’ve found that the source of the problem often lies not in the rubrics themselves but in how assessors are using them. So here are two important caveats. One, don’t use anyone else’s rubric until you’ve reviewed it and made sure that what it assesses matches what you value. Don’t think that just because it says “Writing Rubric” at the top it will address the same qualities of writing that matter to you. Many writing rubrics are weighted heavily in favor of conventions, and may favor formulaic structure as well. If the values within the rubric don’t reflect your writing philosophy, look further or revise the rubric to suit your needs. Better still, if you’re ambitious enough, create your own.

And two, don’t be too literal in your interpretation. Rubrics are written by humans (though some do sound suspiciously robotic) for use by humans. That means you get to think. You get to be flexible. I used to tell people, “It’s a best match kind of enterprise.” There are few papers out there that will match every bullet for a given level within a given trait. That’s not even intended. Here’s an example from our six-trait rubric for ideas, describing a level 6 paper:

  • Clear, focused, compelling—holds reader’s attention
  • Strong, riveting main point, idea, story line
  • Striking insight, in-depth knowledge of topic
  • Takes reader on journey of understanding
  • Significant, telling details that go beyond the obvious

 

If that sounds like a lot to expect, keep in mind that it isn’t necessary for a given piece to include everything mentioned. There are multiple bullets because writing traits—things like ideas, organizational design, or voice—are extraordinarily complex. You simply can’t sum them up in a word or phrase. Descriptors provide a synthesis of responses by countless careful readers, and together represent the essence of what you’re likely to see (or hear) in a performance at a given level. Many times, teachers zero in on a particular  phrase that speaks to them. Maybe telling details speaks to you. Or journey of understanding. Or striking insight. And in the classroom, teachers often add their own shades of meaning—explores a key question, for example.

Four advantages to rubrics. In my 2006 article, I cited four advantages to using rubrics, and I still believe in all four. First, writing down what we value in writing (or any endeavor) gives us a basis for conversation. Once I put my thinking about the trait of ideas in writing, you’re free to add your two cents’ worth—you might say, “You didn’t mention imagination. I think that’s important.” You’re right—it is. I may think that’s covered under riveting, but if you disagree, you can add a line: Shows imagination. Now you’ve made the rubric your own, and that’s a good thing because what you teach your students should come from you.

Second, rubrics cause us to reflect. Almost the moment you put your thoughts about writing on paper, the need to revise and refine grabs you—as it should. You begin with one description of ideas or voice or whatever, and on reflection say to yourself, no, that’s not quite it. As you work on making your definition increasingly precise, you need to look at various pieces of writing, some strong and compelling and some not, so that you can describe what you see—and what you feel. Remember, good descriptors are about reader response. That means they’re based on the experience of reading actual text. As you strive to make your language mirror your thinking, you are, at the same time, teaching yourself to read with exquisite awareness. Rubrics are living, breathing documents. They are never finished because our thinking about what we value is never finished.

Here’s another point often overlooked. Many rubrics out there (or standards, for that matter) are nothing more than glorified wish lists. In other words, they represent what someone wishes students could do, not what successful students (or other writers) are actually doing. There’s a big difference. Rubrics based upon firsthand analysis of actual performance are inevitably more realistic in their expectations. They don’t set the bar for success at some unachievable level almost no one can hope to reach, nor do they define beginning levels of performance in harsh, derisive terms that make writers at that level want to just lie down and give up. Their range of performance is grounded in reality, with the understanding that some performances will exceed all expectations. After all, you might have a Sherman Alexie, Kathryn Erskine, or Walter Dean Myers in your classroom right now.

Third, rubrics keep us honest. When we commit our thinking to paper, we let students in on what it is we value so they don’t have to guess. That’s a simple question of fairness. Let’s not be afraid to put ourselves on the line. Our students cannot read our minds, and they deserve our honesty. Admittedly, sharing what we value in performance puts a lot of power in the hands of the performers—and this does make some people uneasy. Once criteria are in the open, students have the right to disagree with our assessments of their work, and now they have a basis for doing so—something they do not have with letter grades, which generally come without definitions or specified expectations. (In fact, the critic who cried “Burn your rubrics!” might have more appropriately said, “Burn your grade books!”) I once asked a group of teachers to give me their definitions of the grade B-. Responses ranged from “Just barely getting it” to “Almost there! A good effort!” Those are strikingly different messages. They’re about as different, in fact, as scores of 2 and 4 on an analytical rubric. A student once told me she would rather receive an F than a C since an F translates as “You didn’t care enough to try” while a C means “You tried but failed anyway.” You might define these grades differently, of course—but that’s the point, isn’t it? Shouldn’t message sent match message received?

Fourth—and most important by far—a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision, giving student writers an insider’s view of what makes writing work. This is the reason that my colleague Jeff Hicks and I took to calling rubrics “writing guides.” The word “rubrics,” carries a certain connotation of “rules.” A writing guide doesn’t lay down the rules of good writing. It isn’t a set of standards, either. The six-trait writing guide is literally a description of what writing looks like as it evolves through the process of revision.

A writing guide written in student friendly language gives young writers independence. It allows them to determine on their own, quite apart from any assessment or comments we may provide, whether they have been successful with their writing—and if not, what they can do about it.

This kind of independence takes more than just handing out writing guides, of course. It only happens in classrooms where students have regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising the writing of others, both other students and professional writers. As they review a wide range of documents from many sources and genres, they need to ask questions like these: Were the ideas well developed, and if so, how did the writer accomplish that? Was it explanations, examples, details, imagery, or what? Is the organization easy to follow, and if so, what made it easy? Was it the underlying structure, the clear transitions from point to point, the author’s effort to stay on track and omit irrelevant details, or something else?

Mental rubrics: We’re all using them! I believe firmly that all people use rubrics—including people who claim to dislike or mistrust them. These critics don’t write their rubrics down—they don’t commit to public scrutiny; they just keep them tucked away in their heads. But their comments allow us to infer what they value. Though some writing coaches will maintain that their comments are spontaneous and individual to each piece of writing, I believe that if those comments were recorded, they would reveal surprising threads of continuity. A rubric simply captures those threads and makes them visible.

The truth is, we all use mental rubrics daily, as a matter of routine. When you choose a place to go for dinner, you probably don’t whip out a rubric. (Neither do I—that’s only a rumor.) But you know what you’re looking for, don’t you? Your “10 Traits of a Good Restaurant” are just as clear in your mind as if you had put them on a rubric—ambiance, good food, great wine list, a view, snappy service, cleanliness, music you can talk over, easy parking, fair prices, comfortable seating, etc.  Your traits may differ from mine, but the point is, you could write them down if someone asked.

I recently read a book on writing that included a rather harsh indictment of rubrics. I won’t mention the title because that might look as though I’m criticizing the book and I’m not. It’s a very good book. But I found it ironic that the author opposes the use of rubrics when the whole book is itself a rubric. It’s very easy to identify the traits the author values: vivid detail, lively dialogue, voice, appealing leads, memorable endings, and risk taking. Just sharing these traits with students, even without extended definitions or any point system, would be helpful in any classroom using this book as a resource. My point is, why not be open about it?

Scripts—or reminders? Some critics argue that using a rubric causes you to script your comments. This strikes me as both absurd and comical enough to warrant its own animated film. Who are these mechanized, cartoon teachers anyway? I want to meet them. I have known hundreds of teachers who used six-trait writing guides in their classrooms, and not a one of them needed or would ever submit to a script. Teachers—at least the ones I have known—are pretty independent, opinionated people. They question everything. But they also know when something rings true. As many have told me, “I was always responding to this elusive something in my students’ writing. Now I have a name for it. Voice.” They don’t need to describe voice in the words of the rubric—but they love having a name for that force that keeps them turning pages.

While I do not believe in scripting comments, whether for assessment or instruction, I think reminders can be helpful, especially in a situation like conferring where we strive, all of us, to ask the right question or say the words that will take a writer forward. For some teachers, conferring comes as naturally as breathing, and if you’re one of those gifted people, you have my deepest admiration.

It doesn’t come easily to everyone, though, any more than say, writing a letter or making a speech. But if you’ve ever used a writing guide with clear, well-articulated criteria, you have writers’ language to work with. You hear in your head echoes of things like voice, strong verbs, enticing leads, words that wake you up, details that make you feel as if you’re right there or teach you something new. Those echoes just might make it easier to offer a suggestion or ask a leading question. Naturally, you can put your own spin on such criteria. I do. Instead of saying, “Your ideas are not fully developed,” I’d be much more likely to say, You wrote a first line. Hey, that’s a start. Can you tell me what happens next? You talk and I’ll make some notes . . .  Instead of saying, “More sensory detail is needed here,” I would probably ask, If I closed my eyes, what details about that old house would I still notice?

I can interpret, adapt, infer, and invent. I’ll bet you can, too. Can’t you?

Comments—pluses and pitfalls. Some critics reject writing guides because they feel we should talk to students from the heart, that nothing takes the place of personal comments. Actually, I agree with this. I just happen to think comments and rubrics can work in harmony. Both are important—but they offer different kinds of information. A rubric provides the sort of overview that’s hard to replicate through comments alone unless you’re willing to write an essay—and don’t forget, that means for every student every time. Criteria provide enough information to writers so that we, the coaches, don’t have to start from scratch. We don’t have to say everything. But we do need to say some things.

Whether verbally in a conference or in writing, your students need to hear your honest and immediate impressions. They need to know if you are shocked, excited, delighted, touched, saddened, bewildered, surprised, curious, revolted, or mystified. After all, rubrics cannot say all there is to say about a piece of writing. But news flash: Neither can comments, whether oral or written.

To imagine that comments will always be nurturing, responsive, understandable, original, relevant, witty, perceptive, inspiring, and well-received is to live in a dream world. If you’ve received such comments on your writing, you are fortunate. The truth is many comments are hard to interpret, too short to be helpful, or even—in the worst case scenario—hurtful. And it’s often those hurtful ones that stick in the minds of writers, sometimes for years. Following are a few comments recalled by teachers as much as thirty years after they were first scribbled on some piece of writing or other:

  • You missed the point completely—F.
  • This is basically verbal vomit.
  • Your writing reminds me of a porcupine—many points leading in meaningless directions.
  • I can’t believe what I see here. There is nothing of worth. It is only the documentation that boosts this paper to a D-.
  • Reading this has depressed me more than I can say.
  • Lay off the exclamation points. This isn’t that exciting.
  • You will never, ever be an author.
  • Do the world a favor. Don’t write.

It takes a pretty strong-willed, confident writer to pop back up after this kind of sucker punch and announce, “Hold on—I haven’t finished revising! I’m going to turn this around!” That, as you know well, is not what happens. Negative comments and the paper they’re written on wind up in the trash—as they should. They’re energy zappers and they chip away at what a writer needs far more than clever ideas, and that is the courage to keep going.

It isn’t just the negative comments that are less than helpful, either. Even when you are deeply moved by a writer’s work, even when every fiber in you wants to be encouraging, there’s an art to commenting effectively.

Just saying “Good job!” or “I loved this piece!” isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece:

  • Your lead got me hooked, but what kept me going was trying to figure out if technology actually is making us smarter or making decisions for us. Great discussion—I like the way you brought in so many perspectives and still came up with a conclusion.
  • It was fascinating to see what good escape artists octopuses are. How would it work if you added the story of one octopus escaping from a tank as an example? By the way, you’ve got me curious enough to visit the aquarium.
  • Your character Anna speaks with such a strong voice. That’s pretty daring too because she isn’t very likeable, but I could never wait to find out what she would say next. How did you make her sound so authentic? And is she a villain? I can’t decide. Can you?
  • It’s great that you decided to use a setting as your lead, especially in a nonfiction piece. I’d love to have you look at the lead from Sy Montgomery’s book The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo. Her approach is so much like yours, I think reading this might give you some ideas for expanding your own lead.
  • I sense you’re struggling a little with this essay on your father and your growing sense of hostility. Things like this can be difficult to write about. I wonder what would happen if you put some of tension you’re trying to describe into dialogue.
  • This topic you chose is an important one, but I’m just not hearing the passion in your voice I heard when you were writing about endangered species. Maybe you’d want to consider returning to that topic—it’s so big you can write about it more than once, you know.

Clearly, comments matter. However, it seems to me ridiculous to argue that personal comments are more effective than writing guides or rubrics—or vice versa. They’re different. Why should this be an either-or sort of question? We need both. But just as we have to ensure that our comments are specific and helpful, we have to create writing guides that work. How do we do that?

Take it from teachers—not test makers. It starts with development. I’m surprised by the number of people who still believe the six-trait writing guide came from a testing company—from people (some of whom don’t even write—or teach) just sitting around saying, “Here are the things students should be able to do.” I wouldn’t trust any writing guide developed that way, and that isn’t how the six-trait model got its start.

Our writing guide came from teachers, people who interact with students all the time, and who have realistic goals about performance—and extensive practice commenting on that performance. I think this is important because it affects the kind of language you’ll find in the six-trait rubrics. It isn’t mysterious, presumptuous, arrogant, or demanding. It’s descriptive, clear, and respectful, and it’s meant to speak to teachers, parents, and students. I think that is why it has worked so well in so many classrooms. The development process didn’t begin with brainstorming. It began with reading, with a close-up look at the performance the guide is meant to assess.

A group of 17 teachers from the Beaverton School District met for several weeks to read and discuss the writing of thousands—yes, thousands—of students in grades 3 through 12. I was privileged to work with them, and to record and synthesize their observations. Batch by batch, we ranked the papers in three groups: strong, developing, or needs work. As we read, we documented the reasons behind those rankings. Later, in reviewing our reasons, we discovered that the same six features or qualities or traits had influenced all of us: ideas and development of those ideas through details and examples, organizational design, voice, word choice and phrasing, sentence fluency (including both structure and cadence), and conventions.

The writing guide that emerged offered us a language for talking to students about writing—talking to them like the writers they were, making them insiders. Suddenly, students were discussing things like voice and fluency, design and detail. And some teachers thought that students could do even more—especially one teacher, who had a vision.

As fourth grade teacher Ronda Woodruff was reading papers for the district’s annual assessment, she commented, “As I’m reading this rubric, it just hits me—these are the things writers do when they revise. They add details, they revise leads, they change wording. It’s all right here. We need to teach this to students.” Not everyone agreed—at first. A few said, “You can’t teach students to be assessors. That’s the teacher’s job.” They could hardly have been more wrong.

Those early skeptics were equating assessment with judgment or grading. As the six-trait model was about to teach us all, assessment is so much more than that. It’s a doorway to understanding.

Students quickly came to understand that the trait of ideas, for example, was about message, clarity, and detail. They understood that organizational design was about structure, leads, transitions, pacing, and conclusions. Virtually all of them loved assessing anonymous pieces of writing; they couldn’t get enough. Not only did they assess student writing, but they soon began reviewing pieces from the newspaper, from journals, from school communications, government PR documents, advertisements, cookbooks, and scenes from novels. They didn’t do all this by memorizing the language of the rubrics. They did something far more effective and long lasting: They internalized the concepts behind that language.

As weeks passed, students became highly adept assessors. They got incredibly good at identifying jargon or fuzzy thinking or missing transitions. Suddenly, revision was transformed from an overwhelming task nobody wanted to tackle into a set of smaller, manageable options at which kids were rapidly becoming  experts: taking out unneeded information, replacing weak verbs with stronger ones, adding sensory details, combining choppy sentences, detangling gangly ones, writing new leads or endings, or . . . the possibilities were endless. And best of all, students could come up with their own ideas for revision.

Personalizing. As those students demonstrated so well, reflective readers don’t memorize rubrics, or enslave themselves to rigid language. In fact, just the opposite happens. Over time, they tend to personalize rubrics. I know I do this.

Take voice, for example. My personal definition has been shaped by my reading over decades. I know voice comes in many guises. It can make me laugh—sometimes. Or jar my thinking, move me to tears, cause me to reread, or make me so frightened and fascinated at the same time that the only thing harder than reading on is stopping. Mark Twain’s writing has shaped my definition of voice. So has Mary Karr’s, Jerry Seinfeld’s, Carl Sagan’s, Sy Montgomery’s, Michio Kaku’s, Bill Bryson’s, Amy Tan’s, Stephen Hawking’s, Frank McCourt’s, Laura Hillenbrand’s, Gary Paulsen’s, and Anne Lamott’s, to name only a few. These voices are nothing alike. But they can all make you stop and listen.

Whenever I hear the word voice, I recall the moment my friend Darle Fearl, a veteran teacher and one of about thirty six-trait raters on our early assessment team, brought the whole state assessment to a halt when she held up her hand and said, “You guys—you have to hear this.”

As we lowered our pencils, Darle began to read a three-page student paper about a boy and his dog, and with the first lines, the room fell silent  . . . “I don’t get along with people too good, and sometimes I am alone for a long time. When I am alone, I like to walk to forests and places where only me and the animals are. My best friend is God, but when I don’t believe he’s around sometimes, my dog stands in.” The paper was untitled—but forever after (and I have it in my file to this day) we called it Fox, after the name of the boy’s intrepid dog, who once tried to save him from drowning—“He was too little to save me if I was really drowning, but it was the thought that counts—I owe him one.” Well, writing guides cannot very well include language like “Reminds reader of the paper called Fox” or “Gives the reader chills” or “Causes gatherings to fall silent.” Such thoughts need to be shared personally—I agree.  But here’s what a score of 6 in voice does communicate to the writer:

  • As individual as fingerprints
  • Reader cannot wait to share it aloud
  • Mirrors writer’s innermost thoughts and feelings
  • Passionate, vibrant, electric, compelling
  • Pulls reader right into the piece

 

Are these criteria restrictive? I don’t think so. Are they formulaic, as some critics have suggested? Hardly. Do they tell all there is to know about a given piece of writing? Absolutely not. Nor are they meant to. But they go well beyond “Good job!” They tell a writer that his piece of writing was moving and individual, that he put himself into what he wrote. That may not be enough, but it’s a good start.

We can then complement this information through our own words: “This piece hit me so hard I had to catch my breath. I could tell from the first paragraph how much you and Fox loved each other, and how special that pond was to you. My favorite part was Fox trying to save you from drowning—it was hilarious and touching at the same time. And by the way—I love how you played with the grammar to create this unique and moving voice.” Together, criteria and comments tell the student not only that he succeeded, but how and why.

Getting innovative. Ronda Woodruff, whose vision opened the door for all of us who later taught traits to students, refused to give scores of 1 or 2. She said there was no point in low scores, that such papers were not yet ready for assessment, and that’s how she marked them for students: Not ready yet. The lowest score she would give was a 3 on a five-point scale, which might have translated to a 3 or 4 on a six-point scale. Ronda took her students from “not yet ready” to “ready” by asking questions. And while we usually think of questions as something relegated to the one-on-one conference, I’ve often thought how useful it could be to incorporate them right into our rubrics in place of descriptors. Let me show you what I mean. Right now, the level 1 descriptors for the trait of ideas read as follows:

  • No clear main idea or story yet
  • Topic not yet defined in writer’s mind
  • Reader left with many questions
  • Notes, first thoughts, prewriting
  • Writing to fill the page

 

I think we could replace these bulleted descriptors with questions a student might ask him- or herself:

  • What topic would you like to write about? Write it down.
  • If you aren’t sure, would you like help exploring topics?
  • What question or questions do you have about this topic? Make a list.
  • What questions do you think a reader might have? List those, too.
  • Write one sentence about this topic that you know to be true. Now, let’s talk!

 

Questions like these could help a young writer recognize a score of 1 for what it is—not failure, but a beginning point. They would also give the writer an immediate sense of direction, and something concrete to discuss in a conference.

Criteria + comments = powerful assessment. I said in 2006 that we should respond to student writers the way we would want someone to respond to our own writing. I still think that’s a pretty good rule to go by. None of my teachers used writing guides. In fairness, they didn’t hold writing conferences either. Nor did they offer examples of what they were looking for. Some, I’m convinced, didn’t know. Were they consistent in their written comments? Not in the least. Most of their comments were cryptic and fell under the “Good job” or “Try harder” category. In a few classes we learned, over time, what to expect—which teachers valued clear thinking, which ones wanted research, which were sticklers for conventions, and which ones had a sense of humor. Often, we earned extra points for simply turning a paper in on time—though obviously, the punctuality enthusiasts were “assessing” and rewarding something quite different from good writing.

Did our grades improve through the year? A bit, sure. After all, we’d become super sleuths who could read teachers’ preferences with mind blowing acuity. But just imagine how many more of us might have succeeded as writers, how much further we might have gone if we’d had examples to review and discuss, some writers’ language to guide us, and a chance (oh, hallelujah) to wear the assessor’s hat for a change, and assess other students’ work, professional writing—or (here’s a thought) writing done by some outrageously plucky teacher who not only wrote alongside us, but was brave enough to share the results.

It all comes back to concepts. The secret to solving this criteria vs comments riddle lies within one word: concepts. In deciding how best to help students write and revise (which is the heart of all writing), we have to ask, “How will we teach them the concepts of good writing?” I think this takes several things. First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.

If you are using a rubric or writing guide, don’t abuse it. Allow it to be flexible, changeable, and ever-evolving—like you. Don’t have students memorize the language. Why would you? Remember that it’s not the wording that counts but the concepts behind that wording. The words on the rubric don’t sum up the definitive way of thinking about any trait. They’re just a launching platform for further thinking, reading, and exploring.

If your students understand the concepts of ideas, organization, voice, and other traits, and if they have practice assessing many kinds of writing and discussing the results, something magical will happen. Next time you confer with them, or the time after that, you won’t have to choreograph the BIG REVISION PLAN. Your independent writers will have their own ideas about what to do. And guess what? Don’t take this the wrong way, but their ideas might be even better than yours.

 

Reading Recommendations

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

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Room by Emma Donaghue
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steve Johnson
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

between the world and meroomghost maporphan master's son

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Jeff continues his work teaching—and rumor has it that his upcoming post will be based on that experience. I am enjoying a book from the world of creative nonfiction (title to be revealed later), and will share it when I return.

 

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

 

 

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

Genre: Teacher resource book

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

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

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

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

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

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Background

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

1. Why Read?

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

–Reading builds a mature vocabulary.

–Reading makes you a better writer.

–Reading is hard and “hard” is necessary.

–Reading arms you against oppression.

–Reading is financially rewarding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Window Quotes (What does the text say?)

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

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

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

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

The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.

Divorce.

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

Divorce.

Secrets.

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

Divorce.

The Secret.

(Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Pages 2-3)

What did you notice?

What “moves” does Mr. Paulsen make?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Writing:

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

Mr. G’s                                                                        Students’

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

*Being told we were moving                                          * Attending my first funeral

*An automobile accident                                                *First time staying home alone

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

Near Misses

When the Weather Mattered

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

Unprepared

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

Informative/Explanatory Writing:

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

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

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

Your Birthday in History

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

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

Argumentative Writing:

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

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

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

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

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

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Builds Empathy in Students”

“Reading and Writing Narrative Texts Improves Students’ Social Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s Butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

#1—Do not over-model

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

(Page 137)

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

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About the author . . .

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now

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Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. 2011. Sandpiper—HMH: Boston.

Genre: Novel

Ages: Grades 6-9

Review by Jeff Hicks

Summary

I know it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the absolute truth. As I read Okay for Now (a National Book Award Finalist), there were many moments where I laughed and/or I cried—out-loud, mirthful laughter and salty, stream down my face tears of sadness or for those moments of celebration when basic human goodness prevailed. In between those moments, I was nervous, scared, amazed, relieved, and always driven to keep reading. Seriously. I’m hoping you recognize Gary D. Schmidt as the author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, both Newberry Honor Books and excellent reads on their own. (If his name and work is new to you, Okay for Now is a great place to start.) Okay for Now is described as a “companion book” to The Wednesday Wars—not exactly a sequel or prequel but a chance for Doug Swieteck (a friend of Holling Hoodhood, the main character from The Wednesday Wars), to tell his important story. (Both books are stand-alones, so you don’t have to read one before the other.) The book begins in 1968—Apollo space missions, the Vietnam War, political and social unrest/protest—and Doug’s family is moving from New York City to the “metropolis” of Marysville, a much smaller town in upstate New York. That means leaving friends and his Yankee hero, Joe Pepitone, behind and enrolling in a new school for his eighth grade year. Doug refers to his new home in “stupid” Marysville as “the Dump”—and he carries this attitude with him as he begins to explore his new surroundings. He also carries some heavy emotional baggage—a verbally and physically abusive father, one brother serving in Vietnam, another brother at home who wastes no time before stirring up trouble, his struggles with reading, and a couple rather heavy personal secrets. Doug’s first encounters with Marysville residents are less than cordial, but he manages to befriend Lil Spicer, whose dad owns the local deli. Doug and Lil’s paths continue to intersect at, strangely for Doug, the open-on-Saturdays-only public library. It is here that Doug continues to be pulled each Saturday, for friendship, for the amazing birds of John James Audubon, and for the mission he needs to help him shed some of the baggage clouding his life.

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Inside Your Classroom

  1. Background. For me, the background of this book is my childhood—Doug Swieteck and I grew up in the same time period. Though our family life was very different, the big events and issues of Doug’s time—the Vietnam War, Apollo space missions, baseball (Doug follows the New York Yankees), and the post-British invasion (music, not military)-pre-Woodstock world—are very familiar to me. You and/or your students may know someone who served or is currently serving in the military, in Vietnam, or more recently in Iraq/Afghanistan. This personal connection, with attention to its sensitive nature, could serve as a launching point for preliminary discussions of wartime, its impact on society, and its affect on both those who serve and their families. The Apollo space program is another topic worthy of discussion prior to reading. The missions leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing—Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man…”—were events focused on in school and talked about at home. The book begins with references to the New York Yankees and specifically to two famous players of the time, Joe Pepitone and Horace Clark. Do any of your students follow professional baseball (or other sports)? What are their favorite teams? Who are their favorite players? What would it mean to them if they had an opportunity (like Doug does) to meet and play catch with their sports heroes?

(Note: It only takes a quick Internet search to locate information, images, and videos that could provide the necessary front-loading for students. I’ll return to these topics later when I discuss research/writing opportunities. )

  1. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll definitely need to preview this book prior to sharing it with students. Doug’s home life—abusive father, a bullying older brother and another brother who returns physically and emotionally scarred from duty in Vietnam—is something you’ll want to be prepared for before students begin to experience the book. These plot elements, handled honestly and respectfully, are absolutely central to the story and to Doug’s development as a character; they will surely elicit important questions and discussions.                                                  (Note/Warning): It’s important to know that there is a moment later in the book where the extent of physical abuse Doug has suffered at the hands of his father is revealed. It is a bit shocking, but by this time, readers know Doug well and can see that he’ll get through it with the help of his friends and the support of a wonderful teacher. You know your students best—you may decide that it’s not a book for all. I believe that Doug’s story will resonate with your students and with your guidance, the discussions and work will be meaningful.)

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Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of one of John James Audubon’s Birds of America illustrations. (The color example included above, is “The Black-Backed Gull,” Plate CCCLI, introduced in chapter four.) These are also central to the story/author’s message and essential for students to see. A quick Internet search will provide you with color images of these illustrations to project in your classroom. If possible, you could save each image in a folder for student access or provide them with a link to each illustration, posted on your teacher/school website. You could even go old school and display copies of the images on a bulletin board, adding a new image each time a chapter begins.

  1. Illustrations/Organizational structure. As I just described, each chapter of the book opens with one of the illustrations from Audubon’s, Birds of America. Though this is not a “picture book,” these illustrations are both road signs directing readers through the story, and windows into Doug’s way of thinking about the world. Their inclusion serves the important organizational purpose of previewing/reviewing plot elements and mirroring for readers Doug’s growing interest in Audubon’s art and his own drawing. I suggest showing students the illustration that opens chapter one, The Arctic Tern, Plate CCL, and ask them to do a quick write of their response to the image—what they see, feel, imagine, etc. These responses could be shared first with a partner or small group, then with the class. The question, “What in the illustration leads you to this thinking?” will help them find “support” for their ideas by returning to the source—the image—for evidence.

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Doug’s response to The Arctic Tern when he first sees it in the Marysville library gives readers some insight into what he’s feeling about his current life situation in his new town.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

            He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea…His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit…The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.

            This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.

            It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.

            The most beautiful. (Page 19)

How does this compare with your students’ responses? What do they know about Doug so far that might help explain his thinking? Why do you think he is so compelled to attempt to draw the bird? After finishing a chapter, go back to the illustration to connect any additional information they may have gleaned to their previous thinking. You don’t have to have students repeat this entire process for each chapter. They could keep a personal Audubon Bird “journal” to respond, reflect, make predictions, connect the dots of Doug’s life, chart the changes in the way Doug looks at his world, etc. This journal could be used as a resource for a more formal literary analysis focusing on the arc of Doug’s character growth.

  1. Details—“The Stats.” To quote Vicki from her recent post about Sneed Collard’s book, Fire Birds, “Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more.” This is true in both fiction and non-fiction writing. In Okay for Now, the author has created a character, Doug, who is a detail guy. (Which means the author is a detail guy.) Doug pays close attention to the world around him. Whether it’s absorbing baseball statistics and trivia, searching for places to hide his sacred Joe Pepitone jacket from his menacing brother, checking even the slightest facial cue to know what kind of mood his father is in, or the way Audubon has drawn feathers on one of his birds, Doug is a noticer. In his first interaction with Lil Spicer, before he knows her at all, he notices her smile: “She smiled—and it wasn’t the kind of smile that said I love you—and she skipped up the six marble steps toward the marble entrance.” (Page 17) The details the author has Doug notice help readers clearly see and feel the people, places, and happenings in his life. The details invite readers inside the writer’s ideas. As insiders, we want to keep reading, and that’s a good thing. Ask your students to look for examples where they feel invited inside the story, like the one above. Post some of these examples on a bulletin board to remind students to invite their readers inside every time they write. Keep an eye out as you read for moments where Doug gives readers what he calls the stats—you’ll see some examples on pages 14, 49, 104, 168, etc. Here are the stats—things he notices—from the kitchen of one of the people he delivers items from Spicer’s Delicatessen to (yes, he gets a job from Lil’s father).

The floor was white and yellow tile—twenty-four tiles

                        wide, eighteen tiles long.

            One rack with sixteen copper pots and pans hanging over

                        a woodblock table.

            Four yellow stools around the woodblock table.

            Twelve glass cupboards—all white inside. You could

                        have put my mother’s dishes into any one of these

                        and you would have had plenty of room left over.

            And the dishes! All white and yellow. And the glasses!

                        Who knows how many? All matching. Not a sin-

                        gle one chipped. (Page 49)

Precise numbers, colors, specific descriptors, feelings—this almost poetic inventory creates a strong image of this kitchen and how sharply it contrasts with his own. I would have students imitate this form—“the stats”—to practice their own skills as noticers. They could do “the stats” from their class time with you, to create a picture of what their room at home looks like, to review or summarize a chapter from this book, to recount their lunch break, to summarize research, as a form of poetry, etc. It’s all about the details!

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  1. Research. The CCSS have got everyone talking about the balance of “fiction vs. non-fiction” reading. The standards also have us talking about writing—“narrative vs. informational/expository/argument.” The conversation often gets heated, but I’m glad we’re talking, especially about writing. Okay for Now is, of course, a fictional narrative. As I was reading, though, I couldn’t help but connect the fictional people and events to my very real, non-fiction life. And my reader’s brain kept prodding me with questions that required me to delve into the non-fiction information world to find answers. Here are just a few of the things I felt would be worthy of some further reading and “research”:

The Vietnam War

-Soldiers returning home

-PTSD

-Treatment of veterans

-Comparison to World War II, Iraq, Afghanistan

Space Exploration

-Apollo missions

-Landing on the moon

-Manned, unmanned missions

-“The Space Race”

Sports Stars/Heroes

-Joe Pepitone, Horace Clark

-Sports stars as role models

-Sports memorabilia

-Biography

-Compared to today—salaries, television, social media

John James Audubon

-Bird research

-Ornithology

-Etching, watercolor

-Audubon Society

-Endangered Species

-Biography

-Importance of art

Broadway Plays

-New York City

-Adapting novels to plays

-Acting as a profession

-Role of producer

-Stagecraft—sets, lighting, costumes, etc.

Libraries

-Books vs. “electronic” reading

-Importance in communities today vs. years ago

-Funding advocacy

Rights of the Disabled

-Handicap access—ramps, elevators, etc.

Community Activism

-Preserving history, landmarks, traditions

Any one of these ideas (there are many more possibilities) could become, with some questioning/stretching/narrowing/personalizing, a topic for further student reading (non-fiction) and research-based informational writing. Several from this list could become topics turned into written arguments or debate topics—for/against—attempting to inform and persuade readers.

Not to belabor the obvious point, but the reading of quality “fiction” can lead to the reading of quality “non-fiction.” The opposite is also true. We learn anytime we read. And when students are exposed to a variety of models of quality writing—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.—commingled with a variety of writing opportunities, their writing improves.

  1. Impact of the book. “Everyone has a bag of rocks to carry.” I can’t remember who first put this notion inside my head, bit it stuck. I tried to think about this with every student in my class. Sometimes it’s clear what kinds of rocks someone is carrying—learning difficulties, hunger, difficult home lives. Other times, you don’t know the bag’s contents, but you know it’s a heavy load. To paraphrase a bit from Vicki’s Fire Birds post (STG January 26, 2015—be sure to read it!), “Good writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding or appreciation of a topic.” If anything, experiencing this book might help students be more aware of the rocks people are carrying, and to look more compassionately at classmates, family members, and people in general. New York Times op/ed writer Nicholas Kristof has suggested that there is something he calls a “compassion gap” in America and has questioned how we can help develop a greater sense of compassion in our citizens. Meeting Doug Swieteck—his family, friends, mentors, teachers—and his bag of rocks, in the book Okay for Now, is a place to start.

About the author . . .

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For more information about author Gary D. Schmidt and his books, visit http://www.hmhbooks.com/schmidt/

One intriguing (at least to me or anyone with Hicks as a last name) tidbit about Mr. Schmidt is that he was born in Hicksville, New York. Totally amazing, right?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m working on a couple things—a review of Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, and some commentary on Thomas Newkirk’s thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Fire Birds

Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests by Sneed B. Collard III. 2015. Bucking Horse Books.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book.

Ages: For readers 8 to 14.

Review by Vicki Spandel

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Summary

Most of us have been taught that wildfires are a bad thing—and that’s true when they threaten homes or lives. In the wilderness, however, wildfires can be an essential part of the natural life cycle. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way.

In this book, readers discover that natural wildfires are anything but a contemporary phenomenon; they have been with us throughout time. And while they can be intensely frightening and destructive, the news is not all bad. Wildfires actually generate life, especially when allowed to follow their natural course. Intervention by humans can create a situation where fire fuels grow and expand so profusely that fire cannot be stopped or contained. Good intentions do not always lead us down the best path.

This book does not endorse allowing any fire to go unchecked if it threatens homes or human lives. But it does help us recognize the benefits that natural occurring fires bring—not only habitat for many types of wild birds, but also fertile soil for regeneration of countless trees and shrubs that create natural, multi-species forests. Naturally occurring fires also clear the forest of underbrush which, if allowed to grow unchecked, presents an unthinkable danger to plants, animals, and any humans happening to reside nearby. It is time, as the author tells us, to update Smokey Bear’s message.

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Inside Your Classroom

1. Background. Is wildfire common in your area? Perhaps some of your students (or you) have witnessed a wildfire, watched media coverage, or even been evacuated. Take time to discuss the frequency and severity of fires in your area, particularly in recent years, inviting students to share experiences of their own. How do your students feel about wildfires prior to experiencing this book? (Note: This can be a sensitive topic for students who have suffered loss as a result of fire, so we recognize your need to pursue this discussion with awareness and caution.)

2. The title: Inference and prediction. A title like Fire Birds could well apply to a sci fi adventure! This is a science book, of course. So where did this title probably come from? What hints does it provide about the likely theme or central message of the book?

3. Sharing the book. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing it with students. At just under 50 pages, it is a quick read for an adult, and the combination of fascinating information, enticing illustrations, and strong sense of drama make it an inviting text for young readers who favor nonfiction or have an interest in nature. This book is highly recommended for use with a study group. If you decide to share it with the whole class, a document projector is all but essential since the illustrations are an integral element of the book’s message.

4. Introduction. As the Common Core standards for writing remind us, a good introduction sets the stage for what follows. Share the introduction titled “Inferno!” aloud with students, using a document projector to share the accompanying illustration of a wildfire as you do so. Ask students to listen for words or phrases that catch their attention (notably verbs), and make a class list. You may wish to read the passage more than once to facilitate this. What impression is the author creating with this passage? Is it effective in setting the stage for the discussion to come? Does it capture our attention? How? In particular, notice the final line, a three-word question. Why is this question particularly important? Ask how many of your students have used a question as part of their writing strategy in crafting an introduction.

5. Organizational structure. Check out the Table of Contents. It’s very colorful! Do your students like the format? Notice that although this is not a long book (about 50 heavily illustrated pages, including appended material), it’s broken into an introduction plus five chapters. Does breaking a text up in this way help readers? How? Notice that the chapters are not only numbered, but also have titles. See if your students can use these titles to orally trace the writer’s thinking, point to point, even prior to reading the book. Are their expectations borne out as they read the text?

6. Main idea. What is this author’s main idea or message? Pose this question after sharing Chapter 1—and ask students to summarize the main idea in their own words. Then, revisit the question after getting deeper into the book. Students may not change their minds, but their ability to elaborate on the main idea will likely grow. You might also ask them to listen for a sentence or paragraph they feel sums up the author’s primary message. (Note: Check out the final paragraph on page 30 for one good possibility. Also notice the quotation attributed to Dick Hutto on page 8.)

7. Details. Details take many forms, according to the Common Core: facts, examples, explanations, quotations from experts, illustrations, and more. See how many of these various forms your writers can identify in Fire Birds. Ask how many they use in their own writing. You may want to point out that varied detail enriches writing. No one wants to read text that is all facts, for example. The mind craves variety, and learns more easily when given multiple paths to information. What kinds of details do your students respond to as readers?

8. Format. In addition to chapter titles, author Sneed Collard also makes extensive use of subheads throughout the book. How do these contribute to the organization of the book—and also the sharing of information? To put it another way, do they make the book easier to follow? How? Also notice the boxed information embedded in many of the illustrations. Do these little boxes have something in common? Talk about why the author chose to use this approach rather than simply incorporating this additional information into the regular flow of the text. Is this format effective? Why? Talk about how/when students might use a similar strategy in their own writing.

9. Illustrations. Book designers often say that illustrations and words should complement, not replicate, each other. That is, each should provide information that the other does not. Read the information on page 15 and the first paragraph of page 16 aloud as your students study the photos on page 14. What do we learn from each (illustrations and words) that we do not learn from the other?

10. Research. Many books, including novels, rely on research for authenticity. But nowhere is research more important than in an informational text like this one. Discuss why this matters so much. If the book were based strictly on Collard’s opinion or observations made in his back yard, would it be as convincing? Discuss how and where this author searched for his information. On a scale of 1 to 10, how credible is this research, in your students’ view? (Note that much of the book is based on the work of ornithologist Dick Hutto, described on pages 17 through 19. Students should also be aware that Collard spent extensive time in the field himself, interviewed additional specialists, and also took the photos that illustrate the book. Also point out the extensive additional sources listed in “Digging Deeper,” page 46. Your students may wish to explore some of these resources.)

11. Transitions. Transitions, the CCSS remind us, are vital ways to link ideas in all forms of writing: narrative, argument, and information. In introducing this discussion, see if your students can list 20 transitional words or phrases (however, next, for example, on the other hand, because, nevertheless, and so on). Sneed Collard is an author noted for the strong transitions that make his work so easy to read and follow. Share one or both of the following passages with students and ask them to identify as many transitions as they can—and to discuss how each links ideas: “Home, Sweet Blackened Home,” beginning of Chapter 3, page 21; and “Beetle Bonanza,” page 24. Keep in mind that good transitions are often more than a word long and may occur mid-sentence. Also, there may be more than one transitional phrase within a given sentence. (Note: Permission is granted to print and distribute these pages to your students. They can talk with partners, and identify transitions orally or use highlighters to mark up the text.)

12. Transitional endings. One of the delightful things about a chapter book is that it provides multiple opportunities to consider beginnings and endings. Chapter endings are particularly important because when a reader comes to the end of a chapter, it’s always tempting to find something else to do! No author wants readers to do that! Notice for example the ending to Chapter 2, bottom of page 19: “What he found astonished him.” What is the likely impact of these words on the reader? How does this line provide a transition into Chapter 3?

13. Word choice. Words always matter. In informational writing, though, they can be particularly important because, as we’re reminded in the CCSS, an author must use “domain-specific vocabulary”—what we might call the language of the territory—in order to help us understand a particular topic: in this case, wildfire and its effect on birds’ habitats. This particular book has a special feature—a glossary—to help with word definitions. As you go through the text (and without peeking at the glossary), have students list words they think should be defined. Check your final list against the glossary at the end of the book. Also note how well some terms are defined in context—by how they are used, that is. See, for example, “salvage logging” on page 32.

14. Voice and tone. The Common Core suggests that an informational piece should have an “objective, formal tone,” which some might describe as respectful of the topic or free of personal bias. Does the author achieve that? Identify three or more passages that are good examples of the voice or tone you hear in this book. Brainstorm all the words you can think of that describe these passages: e.g., serious, engaging, thoughtful, humorous, energetic, dramatic, exciting, passionate, reflective. (Note: Reading aloud makes it easier for most students to describe a given text.)

15. Reading graphics. In addition to numerous illustrations, author Sneed Collard includes an important graphic titled “’Hottest’ Fire Birds” on page 25. Ask students to summarize, in a few short lines, the message of this graphic. How does it support the author’s main message?

16. Genre. The author makes a strong case for encouraging us to see wildfires (those that do not threaten human lives or residences) in a positive way. So—should this book be classified as an argument? Or an informational text? Have students write a response, taking a position on this and defending it with examples from the book. (Note: You may wish to access the CCSS definitions to help students make a decision on this.)

17. Crafting an argument. At the close of Chapter 3, page 26, Collard makes a particularly strong statement based on Dick Hutto’s research: “Perhaps humans should stop looking at naturally caused fires as our enemy and start looking at them as an essential part of nature.” Do your students agree? Have them take a position and make an argument for or against the “essential part of nature” position, using information not only from this book, but other sources as well.

18. Impact of the book. Good informational writing should teach readers something new—or at least expand their understanding of a topic. What do your students learn from this book? Make a list of new ideas, surprises, or discoveries. Take a moment to re-examine the reactions to wildfires students expressed prior to reading the book. Have their opinions or feelings changed in any way?

19. Conclusion. In a sense, all of Chapter 5 is a conclusion. But the author also offers an expanded concluding statement in the section titled “Still Work to Do,” page 42 and following. How strong is this conclusion? What thoughts or beliefs do your students think the author wants us to take away from this reading experience?

20. Personal research. Ask students to extend their learning by visiting a burn site, interviewing local firefighters, researching the impact of fires in their home state or elsewhere, following up with resources listed under “Digging Deeper,” page 46, or even observing and photographing wild birds in a new burn habitat if there is one close by. Invite them to share their findings.

Sneed filming

Sneed's son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

Sneed’s son Braden filming birds in Taiwan

About the author . . .

Author Sneed B. Collard III graduated with honors in biology from the University of California at Berkeley and earned his masters in scientific instrumentation from U. C. Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 65 books for younger readers, including Animal Dads, Teeth, The Prairie Builders, Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, and Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. To learn more about Sneed or schedule a school or conference visit, please go to his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com or the website of his publishing house, Bucking Horse Books, www.buckinghorsebooks.com

Sneed portrait

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be sharing reviews of some of the best literature to enter his life of late—but he doesn’t want to share titles just yet! They’re a surprise. Jeff always chooses the most readable, memorable books, though, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for those reviews. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Bridging the Gap

A review by Vicki Spandel

Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core by Lesley Roessing. 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. Foreword by Barry Lane.

Genre: Teacher Resource

Levels: Grades 5 through 12, but adaptable for younger or older students

Features: Chapter by chapter list of recommended published memoirs to share aloud with students (Appendix A); a more extended list of published memoirs to explore (Appendix B); reproducible forms, including full-sized charts, from various lessons throughout the book (Appendix D).

Introduction

Memoir! It’s that magical genre with the power to ignite fires within all of us—first, because we get to read about the incredible real lives of fascinating people, and second because we get to write about the people who fascinate us most of all: ourselves.

Have another look at that subtitle: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. You’re probably thinking “Common Core,” and if so, you’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. Far from it. Bridging the Gap is a book aimed at helping students get to the core of who they are. And in so doing, they learn more than you might think about the world around them—and about writing.

Lesley Roessing’s inspiring new book shows teachers how to transform the study of memoir into something much bigger, namely, a journey of self-discovery, as well as a stepping stone into serious  informational writing and argument. As students ask probing and important questions about themselves—Who am I? Where did I come from? What people, places, or events shaped my life?—they develop a passion for writing that influences both content and voice. Plus, almost inevitably, they wind up delving into multiple genres.

Though memoir requires reflective thought, planning, and narrative skill, answering those questions of family, history, and heritage often calls for research, too—digging to learn more about that country your grandfather came from, the place you lived when you were first born, that second job your dad or mom once held. Along the way, young writers may also discover what they value most, and become inspired to defend those values. Such feelings of conviction mark the beginning of genuine, compelling argument—argument based on internal beliefs, not a topic randomly imposed from without.

Here’s a book that gets it right. It views memoir as a gateway to writing, allowing students to begin with the topic they know best—themselves—then branch out into a more diverse literary world through research and personal exploration of what they value most and why. Bridging the Gap is extraordinarily readable, like having a conversation with Lesley Roessing herself. It’s entertaining (filled with first-rate student examples), inspiring, and jam packed with intriguing lessons on—what else?—putting your whole self into your writing.

Memoir: What is it?

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoir) defines memoir this way:

Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the author’s life . . . Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life . . .

Note that memoir is nonfiction. It’s fact-based. Hence the research component, which could mean anything from interviews, observations, and journeys through attics or old family albums to Internet research or hours spent on Ancestry.com. Also note the distinction between memoir and autobiography: the latter tells the story of a life—while the former tells a story from a life, identifying and reflecting on milestones that have made a difference. A student’s ability to look back and pick out the moments that mattered (instead of listing “every single thing that ever happened to me from birth until right this minute”) is what gives memoir its instructional power—and its punch. Identifying touchstone moments is only the beginning, though.

Building Bridges

In the course of the book, author/teacher Lesley Roessing shows how to use memoir to build—

  1. A bridge across the achievement gap . . . because every single student comes to these lessons with background knowledge, thereby helping to level the playing field.
  2. A bridge to meaningful writing . . . because students find their voice when they can write about what they know best (their own lives), choose personally important topics, and select forms they love through which to share their lives—a poem or graphic book, say, in place of a traditional research paper.
  3. A bridge from fiction to nonfiction . . . because while memoir is narrative in form, it is also nonfiction. It’s not invented—it’s truth. And telling the truth requires digging for facts.
  4. A bridge to argument . . . because in writing memoir, students uncover interesting details that inspire them to form opinions, take sides, question values, develop new positions.
  5. A bridge from reading to writing . . . because the study of memoir begins with the sharing of others’ works, everything from poems and song lyrics to plays and picture books, and requires reading like a writer, absorbing lessons students can later apply to their own writing.

If you’d like to see your students grow as writers right before your eyes, this is your book. Students gain skills with every lesson. They learn to plan and organize writing, to function within a writing community where others’ ideas and ways of expressing them are respected, and to read like writers, noticing and borrowing strategies from every professional writer whose work they encounter. In the course of the book, students have opportunities to—

  • Brainstorm and choose writing-worthy moments from their lives
  • Explore the memoirs of others, including authors like Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Soto, Roald Dahl, Jack Gantos, Billy Collins, and many, many more
  • Practice writing memoirs of their own—memoirs of time, place, or people, just to name a few
  • Examine the traits or characteristics that define good writing
  • Use those traits to evaluate their own writing and that of others
  • Choose a favorite form (poetry, drama, picture book, etc.) to showcase their own work
  • Share their work aloud
  • Publish
  • Connect what they have learned to components of the Common Core standards for both reading and writing

You may be thinking that a book with this much to offer will either be (1) so large you can’t lift it, or (2) so dry and print-dense you won’t want to read it. Trust me, this book is neither.

Practicality—and Process

I don’t know how you read books, but I always begin by leafing through, just to get a feeling for what I’m going to encounter. I’m curious (especially when reading textbooks) to see whether the writer will offer me something practical—things like examples, real student work, easy-to-follow lists of things I can do in an upcoming lesson, things I can model without extensive rehearsal, recommendations, tables or charts I could copy for use with students, and so on.

Robt Smalls 8th Graders

My first thought on leafing through Roessing’s book? There is so much here I can use—right away. I am a big fan of practical; it’s perhaps my number one criterion in evaluating any textbook. Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a “50 Quick Lessons” kind of book all. Though it’s a treasure trove of practical, usable lessons and printable handouts, it’s written with the understanding and insight that only come from a lifetime of teaching. It goes deep into the writing process, beginning at the beginning—where ideas come from.

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Right up front, Roessing gives me what I’m looking for—a foundation. In thoughtful words, she lays out why memoir is important: what it is, and why we should teach it. Best of all, she separates memoir from a simple list of “stuff that happened”:

Adolescents do not spend much time reminiscing; they rarely think about their pasts or talk about memories. However, writing teachers advise them to “write what they know.” And unfortunately they do; they write endlessly about going to the mall, fighting with girlfriends over boys, or trying out for the cheerleading squad or the football team or relate the saga of a fictional sports context, point by point . . . Young writers haven’t yet learned that, to professional writers, these types of events are the settings—the background or catalysts—to larger plots and truths. (p. 3)

I’m only on page 3. But already I know this is an author I can trust. She knows writing, and she knows students. I’m ready to sign on for the journey.

Thoughtful Organization

In addition to being written with conviction and voice, Bridging the Gap is beautifully organized. The book is divided into three large sections:

  • Learning about Memoir
  • Drafting Diverse Memoirs (relating to time, objects, places, people, crises, personal history)
  • Final Writing and Publishing

Students begin by defining in their own minds what memoir is all about, reading expansively to build understanding; then rehearse by drafting several different kinds of memoirs (adding to their understanding while stretching their own writing capabilities); and then wrap up by publishing their work.

Each of the three major sections contains multiple short, highly focused chapters with detailed explanations of what to do in the classroom, specific resources to share, things to model, and countless  examples of original work by teachers, students, and professionals. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community. We are all writers, Roessing is telling us, all in this writing adventure together, all seeking the words that will create meaning for someone else.

Skill Building

Chapters are short enough to read within a few minutes. I love this feature. Chapter 1, for example, focuses on the use of sensory details to inspire memories that may be buried deep within us. It runs only half a dozen pages or so, but within that short span, Roessing deals effectively with—

  • Free writing as a way of inspiring memories (Her explanation of free writing is superb)
  • Reading personal work aloud and creating a safe environment in which that can succeed
  • Using a picture book—in this case Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox—as a model
  • Exploring the power of sensory details—particularly taste and smell—to trigger long buried memories
  • Illustrating the power of sensory detail through an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past
  • Modeling, as a teacher, how sensory details recall the past (The smell of lemon conjures up times at the drugstore with her mother, the sound of whistling brings back memories of a father who whistled all the time)
  • Teaching students to chart their own memories in various ways
  • Modeling the writing and sharing of an original piece

This is teaching at its finest. Students are given professional models to read (or hear), discuss, and learn from. Then in addition, they see the teacher doing what she is asking them to do. They see her using sensory details to call up memories that might otherwise remain dormant—and then showing them how to take those details to the next level: the start of a story. Notice what is happening here. Instead of simply saying, “I want you to write a memoir,” Roessing has defined the genre for students, given them examples to read and discuss, and helped them understand the impact of such writing on readers. They can see and feel how both process and product look. They have the understanding they need to begin—and to move forward with confidence. Best of all, they’ve made progress. A sense of progress is essential to good writing instruction because without this feeling of forward momentum students lose both confidence and motivation.

By the end of Chapter 2, students are moving forward at a heady pace, identifying the characteristics of a good memoir. By the end of Chapter 3, they are collecting quotations from favorite works and charting their own responses to various memoirs as they read them.

Every chapter includes models, examples, and recommended resources, such as books to read aloud. Each is carefully written to build on what has gone before, helping students climb the ladder to writing success, one step at a time.

Traveling Across the Curriculum

I love talking about killer endings, and this book has one—a whole chapter befittingly titled “Conclusion: Where We Have Been and Where We Can Go from Here.” As this excellent conclusion shows, memoir isn’t just for language arts anymore. It can also be part of social studies, history, science, and even mathematics. Roessing begins by listing some recommended memoirs from these various genres to read and discuss, then offers suggestions for extending students’ memoir writing into other classes. Bravo.

Link to Common Core

If you’re living these days with one eye on the Common Core, you’ll love this feature. Each chapter closes with a brief and clear link showing how the lessons just presented relate to specific (yes, they’re numbered) Common Core standards. No guessing. And the number of standards covered, for both reading and writing, is impressive to say the least. That’s the good news.

Now for the really good news: Although the strategies and skills taught in this book are unquestionably connected to the Common Core, Roessing never deals with Core issues in a heavy-handed way: i.e., “Here’s how to comply.” There’s not one shred of formula within these pages. Not one must-do directive. As a teacher, you will have complete freedom to choose the literature you share, model those steps you feel comfortable sharing, and guide students through a process for writing in your own way. You can be as innovative as your imagination will allow. And your students will gain essential Common Core skills while writing in a joyful way that allows them to find their own voice. Of all the bridges Roessing builds in this book, this bridge to independence may be the trickiest. But build it she does.

Read on your own? Or in a study group?

You can surely read this book on your own and begin using the lessons in it virtually immediately. If you love memoir already (reading it, writing it, teaching it), you’ll fall in love with the book from page 1—and I venture to say you won’t be able to wait to get it into your classroom.

If you’re new to memoir, or to the teaching of writing, you might wish to explore the book within the context of a study group. The book lends itself beautifully to discussion—and is an excellent guide to use in trying some memoir writing on your own, which will give you even more confidence in teaching this highly rewarding genre. Following are a few suggestions for discussion questions or activities to enhance the Study Group experience:

  1.  Reading. Scan the extraordinarily helpful Appendix B, a dazzling list of published memoirs for readers and writers of all ages. Choose a few selections from this list (perhaps one or two per study group member) to read thoughtfully, introduce to the group, and discuss. Each person might identify a short passage or two to share aloud, identifying the characteristics that make that particular memoir memorable or worthwhile to share with students. (Study Group participants who have favorite memoirs not on this list should feel free to share those as well, of course.)
  2. Traits of good memoir. Continue reading examples from Appendix B throughout the time the Study Group meets—perhaps for several weeks. As you read, identify characteristics of a good memoir. Make a list. Later, you can use this list as a basis for an assessment rubric (if you want one), or you can share it with students and invite them to add to it based on their own reading.
  3. Recording memories. Follow some of the strategies presented in the first two chapters (e.g., use of sensory details) to prompt personal memories. Make notes, lists, charts, or whatever works to record those memories. Share them with the group or just with one partner, and use them to write a paragraph that could be the start of a longer piece.
  4. Writing a short memoir. Following Roessing’s lead, think about the different things that could mark a touchstone in your own life: time (e.g., first year teaching, year of graduation, travel, a move, marriage or birth of a child), a person who made an impression on you, a place significant for you, an object that has emotional significance, a pet that was part of your life, a decision that affected you. Using examples from Chapters 4 through 10 as models, create a brief memoir of your own in any form that appeals to you: a poem, an essay, a short story, a short drama, a graphic text, an obituary, or whatever works for you as a writer. Share results with the group or with a partner. (Note: It may take more than one study group session to plan, develop, and share memoirs. Do not rush the process. Give your creative juices time to flow.)
  5. Rubric or checklist. Thinking of the memoirs you have read and written, and the initial list of characteristics you compiled as a group to define a strong memoir, create a rubric or checklist you could use to assess memoirs. It can be as simple as a checklist that indicates which important characteristics are present in a particular memoir. Don’t make it too elaborate or you will get hung up in the development of the rubric and probably never get to the important part: using it! Assess your own work first. Be honest—but gentle! And if your rubric needs adjusting or revision, make those changes together. Then, as a group, assess a professional writer’s memoir. Pick something short for this practice, and discuss the process of assessment. What do you learn as an assessor that you cannot learn as a writer or reader? Finally, as a group, assess any piece of student work from the book. As you do so, ask yourself this most important of all assessment questions: “What would the student learn from this assessment that would benefit him/her as a writer?” If you can answer that question readily and expansively, your rubric is a success.
  6. Taking it to your classroom. Close by discussing the benefits of teaching memoir. What do students learn through this exceptional writing journey? Remember to think of the many side roads traveled—such as the use of research to illuminate events or situations from the past that are not wholly clear in the writer’s memory. List all the benefits you can think of, remembering to focus on both reading and writing. Then discuss why and how you will consider teaching memoir in your own classroom.
  7. Distinctions. What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? How will you help your students make this distinction?
  8. Research. This one’s for the memoir enthusiasts out there! The genre of memoir is ancient, as you’ll discover if you research it. Memoirs provided an early form of history books, after all. Consider looking into some of the earliest memoirs: Who wrote them? Who read them? How has the genre reinvented itself for modern times? Whose memoir would you most like to read—if he or she would only write it?

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Author Lesley Roessing, whose work is featured here, was a high school and middle school teacher for over 20 years before becoming director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re excited to announce that prolific author Sneed B. Collard III has just released yet another book—Fire Birds! It’s an outstanding example of nonfiction writing for younger readers, and we’ll be reviewing it here on Gurus shortly. Meantime, welcome back from the winter break, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at Gurus. Come often, and bring friends. And remember . . . give every child a voice.

vicki_jeff_small

by Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks

Conclusions & Conventions

FEATURE 7: Conclusions

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

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

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

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

 the tale of despereaux

Happily ever after? Not always . . .

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

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

But reader, they can be friends.

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

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

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

Deadliest of them all

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

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

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

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

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

 

More endings to avoid at all costs

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

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

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

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

Questions to ask

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

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

TEACHING Conclusions

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

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

writing tools

FEATURE 8: Conventions—and Presentation

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

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

What does the CCSS demand?

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

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

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

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

Notes on these last three bullets

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

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

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

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

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

CW6 Cover

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

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

Good to know. (Important to teach.)

The MOST Common Conventional Errors

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

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

10 Things You Can Do to Teach Conventions Effectively

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

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

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

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

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

towns a thousand miles away

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

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

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

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

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

woe is I   deluxe transitive vampire  eats shoots and leaves

Tip 10:

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

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

mechanically inclined

Presentation

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

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

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

Word Processing Is Essential

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for a review of Fire Birds later in 2015.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 

Resources

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

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

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

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

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Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Hey–are we talking to you?

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

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

 

A Caveat

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

 

Two Things to Notice

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

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

 

The Top 8

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

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

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

 We Are Still Married

FEATURE 1: Purpose & Audience

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

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

To whom is Keillor most likely writing?

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

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

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

 

What kinds of purposes are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

Example 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

charlotte's web

FEATURE 2: Leads

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

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

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

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

World without Fish

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

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

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

Teaching Leads

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

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

Saving the Ghose if the Mountain

FEATURE 3: Detail

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

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

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

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

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

Harris and Me

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

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

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

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

The Animal Dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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

 

Teaching Detail

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

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

FEATURE 4: Structure

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

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

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

Main Point or Argument & Support

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

Revealing the Solution

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

Comparison and Contrast

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

Question and Answer

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

Grouping

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

Step by Step

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

Chronological Order

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

Visual Patterns

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

Point and Counterpoint

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

Recurring Theme

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

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

Planning Your Writing

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

Moonshot

Drama: A Different Organizational Design

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

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

Act 1

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

Act 2

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

Act 3

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

 

PITFALLS That Undermine Organization

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

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

Teaching Structure

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

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

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

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

 Write Traits    CW6 Cover  write_traits_kit_150

Resources

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

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

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/

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

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

images

Though Walt Whitman’s poem, When I Heard the Learn’d  Astronomer, can be accessed for free on many public domain sites online, I recently found it in a picture book format, beautifully illustrated by Loren Long. I loved using this poem in my classroom for its value as poetry, as an accessible and motivating introduction to Walt Whitman, and for its ability to inspire students to write with feeling about topics of particular personal interest to them. Clearly the poem can stand alone, but the illustrations in this edition provide audiences of all ages with a deeper “context enriched by emotion.” (Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 2005. See my April 5, 2012 post here on Sixtraitgurus.) This format helps readers both with interpreting and connecting personally with Whitman’s words. Helping students learn to interpret and connect to poetry/literature is a good thing—a really good thing.

The purchase of this wonderful book and two of Vicki’s recent posts, “Breaking Bad Writers Provide Lesson in Collaborative Writing” (the poem and the poet’s initials play key roles in episodes in Breaking Bad seasons 3 and 5) and “Crack the Common Core with Multigenre Writing,” reminded me why I loved this poem and how it energized my student writers.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. 2004. Words by Walt Whitman. Illustrated by Loren Young. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 32 pages.

Genre: Picture book

Ages: Grades K and up

Summary

Loren Young’s richly colored painted images provide a story frame for Walt Whitman’s short poem. With his toy rocket in hand, a space-loving young boy, uncomfortably dressed in jacket and tie, is taken to a lecture hall to hear grown-up talk about something he dreams about—space, stars, the heavens. The eight pages containing the text of Whitman’s poem are enhanced with simple line drawings done by the illustrator’s two young sons, reflecting the innocent wonder of space in a child’s mind. The boy with the rocket listens to the expert drone on but his interest in the academic’s musings soon wanes. He slips outside, sheds his coat and tie, and immerses himself in the twinkling of the stars in the night sky and his dreams of space.

The suggestions below are focused on students creating two pieces of writing, both inspired by the Walt Whitman poem. One piece is explanatory/informational, the other is an original poem. The focus will be on a single, student selected topic, yet the outcome will be two pieces, each in a different genre and a different voice. Though technically (as imagined by Tom Romano—see Vicki’s post, Sept. 11, 2013), not multi-genre writing, students will be exploring their topic from different angles, and it’s the juxtaposition of these views that will stretch the thinking of both writers and readers.

I really do recommend this book, regardless of the grade level you may teach. To quote an Amazon reviewer of Young’s illustrated edition, I wish I had this book when I was teaching 19th –century American literature to college freshmen.” But to make it easier for you to follow my suggestions below, here is the poem.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were arranged in

columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,

divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As with any material you are going to share with students, take time to preview, read and become comfortable with Whitman’s poem in the context of Young’s paintings. A document camera would be a perfect tool to help you share the book with students, enabling you to zoom in on illustration details or individual words. You might choose to share only the illustrations first, encouraging students to imagine/predict/interpret the story being told. This could be followed with a sharing of the book as a whole—Walt Whitman’s words and Loren Young’s illustrations. This would naturally lead to a discussion focused on connecting their initial imaginings with the poet’s words seen/heard in the context of the illustrations. This isn’t about whose ideas are right or correct. In this kind of discussion, I want students to explain/defend their thinking by referring back to the poet’s words, the details in the accompanying illustrations, and tapping into any personal experiences that guided their thinking.

2. Reading Part II. I believe students should read poetry (I could stop here) aloud individually, with a partner or small group, and whole class. Both the readers and the listeners benefit from multiple readings from a variety of readers—different voices and rhythms broaden the scope and depth of interpretation. Provide students with a copy of the poem with extra space between the lines, allowing for notes—definitions, words to emphasize, comments, etc. I have even offered students the opportunity to act out the poem silently as a classmate reads the words aloud.

3. Central theme. An underlying purpose of the readings and discussion is for students to uncover the author’s message or central theme and any personal connections to their own life experiences. Ask your students: Does When I heard the learn’d astronomer have a central theme or message?  If so, how would you express that message and defend your thinking? Is it as simple as becoming bored with a lecture and leaving for some fresh air? Is the writer suggesting something about the differences between facts and feelings?

4a. Writing #1: The Lecture Room. For this piece, students will need to choose their own topic, something of particular interest to them, a subject they may already know a bit about. The catch is that their topics needs to be factual—something that can be researched. The last time I did this with students, I was working on a team of four teachers—science, math, social studies, and language arts—who shared the same group of students. Geology—rocks, minerals, formation of natural features of the earth, etc.—had been a recent area of focus in their science class. Their teacher had gotten them energized and interested, so I suggested that this might be a place for them to find a writing topic, though they weren’t limited to science. Their topic could have come from history, math, or something outside of school.

To begin this piece, we went back to the poem and book. The speaker in the poem (and the boy in the book) attends a lecture by the “learn’d astronomer,” who fills the room with proofs, figures, charts, diagrams—the facts/research—on a topic he cares deeply about. My students chose a variety of topics: the Grand Canyon, rubies, gold, Antartica, the Leeward Islands, the Andes Mountains, Crater Lake, the Giant’s Causeway, the Barringer Crater, the Amazon River, the Dead Sea, and even poison ivy. Following this, the students’ mission was to search out the proofs, figures, charts, diagrams specific to their topic and create a one-page (approximate) report/lecture quantifying their selected topic. I urged them to load up their piece with interesting minutia—to both intrigue readers with their choices but also, following the poem, to eventually drive their readers to become “tired and sick,” to the point of “rising and gliding out.” The idea was not to bore readers but to almost overwhelm them with details and information. The one page limit (including introduction and conclusion) was to make the reports readable within a short time frame. Here are a few “highlights” from three of the students’ pieces:

Glaciers By David

“…What are glaciers? Well, Glaciers are large masses of mobile, permanent ice, formed on land by the process of consolidation and re-crystallization of snowflakes. Basically, the snow that falls on the glacier, and is still there after a year, is compacted or added onto the glacier. Glaciers may move down a slope by Gravity or spread outward because of its own thickness. These large masses of ice can terminate on land, in the ocean, or any other body of water. Glaciers can range in size from one kilometer to the ice sheet in Antarctica which is 12,500,000 square kilometers…”

Rubies By Dena

“…Burma rubies are typically medium to medium dark pinkish-red to red. Rubies from Thailand are generally darker in tone and tend to have a more purplish-red color. African rubies are similar to Burma stones in color. Vietnamese rubies are usually a bright pinkish-red…”

The Amazon River By Khalid

“…This river starts 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes and 120 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Amazon River has so many turns that it is 4,000 miles long. The mouth of the river is about 200 miles wide. Those 200 miles are between the Brazilian highlands and the Guyanan highlands and crossed by the equator…”

4b.  Voice—of the Lecturer. What is the appropriate voice for a piece of informational/explanatory writing? Regardless of genre, it’s important for writers to know both the purpose of their writing and its intended audience. With informational/explanatory writing, it’s important that the writer’s voice demonstrate the confidence and authority that comes with being an “expert” on the topic. In the case of Writing #1, described above, student writers were instructed to create a fact-overfilled “lecture” in the form of a one-page report. Students were trying on the voice of expertise, pushed up a notch to the point where readers are overloaded with facts. The student writers, in this case, are actually trying to push readers out of the “lecture-room.” One result of this exercise is that writers will become more aware—every time they write—of the choices they make regarding what to include and what to leave out. Every choice affects readers. Are you trying to keep your readers in the room or are you forcing them to sneak out and get away?

5a. Writing #2: The Mystical…Perfect Silence. This part of the writing is about the writers taking a second, fresh look at their topics by leaving the lecture room, getting out in the “mystical moist night-air,” and looking up “in perfect silence at the stars,” and taking their readers along with them. It’s poetry time! (Important note—This was not the first time my students had read, interpreted, and written poetry. I probably wouldn’t have this be a student’s first experience with poetry.) At this point, it’s time to put away proofs, figures, charts, diagrams, and like the rocket carrying boy in the book, take off your coat and tie and dream. This poetic response to the topic is meant to be a chance for the writer, in full possession of the facts, to share with readers their personal joy, passion, wonder, for their subject. These poetic responses may or may not deal directly with the topic. The poem on the topic of rubies might be focused on a ring worn by a favorite grandmother or it could be about the natural forces that make a ruby, a ruby. Rhyming? Free form? All possible as long as the writers are giving readers an inside view into why they even care about their selected topic.

Here are a few moments of poetry from the same three student writers’ poetry:

Glaciers By David

“…A ship had better change its bearing

When large, ancient ice moves.

It crushes anything, powerful force without remorse.

But slowly, over time

The Glacier will move.

It will slide into warmer weather.

It will slowly wither

Returning to what it was before—

Benign water.”

Rubies By Dena

“…A union of love,

a symbol of faith.

Sceptors,

Crowns,

Swords,

And the ever powerful

Crucifix…”

The Amazon River By Khalid

“…Hear

rustling leaves, swirling rapids, a parrot’s squawks.

Feel

a spray of water and warmth from scattered spots of sunlight across your face.

Understand

the peace and untouched glory of centuries.

All within reach of a continuous line of ants parading across the loamy soil.”

5b. Voice–of the Star Gazer. The idea here is for the writer’s voice to change as the purpose of the writing changes. As described above, the poetry’s purpose is different from the one-page report. The poetry isn’t about quantifying with facts and figures; it’s about qualifying the subject in a personal way with feelings and connections. To create this voice, the poets need to think about their topics through a different lens—Why did they select their topics? What about their topic really interests them? What life experiences/connections bring them closer to their topics? Maybe writers will want to use a zoom lens to bring readers in for a close-up or a wide-angle lens to offer a bigger picture. In her book Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher describes voice as the “…offering of the library of self.” The library should always be open, but perhaps each time offering readers a view into a different room.

6. Juxtaposition of Voices/Genres. To “publish” these two pieces of writing, I asked writers to display them side-by-side. I wanted both writers and readers to discover the power of the two voices and genres juxtaposed, experienced one after the other.

Here are Ben’s two pieces, for easy reading, and a photograph of Khalid’s to show how they were displayed.

The Grand Canyon

By Ben

Arizona’s famous Grand Canyon is truly a wonder of the world. Its incredibly immense depth, size, and age has awed some, terrified others, and caused still others to feel sick.

The canyon covers two thousand square miles along 277 miles of the Colorado River. On average, it is a full mile deep, and up to eighteen miles across. From the canyon’s start to its end, the river descends 2200 feet.

The ancient Colorado River began carving out the Grand Canyon about ten million years ago. This process actually started around sixty-five million years ago, when the plateau began rising from internal pressure. (Perhaps this was caused by the same meteor that supposedly killed the dinosaurs.) This “upwarping” caused rivers to flow faster and cut deeper in to the ground.

The Grand Canyon itself is only two million years old, but the rock it is carved through is much older. Its top layer of Kaibab Limestone is two hundred fifty million years, and the bottom layer of Brahma and Vishnu Schist goes back two billion years.

Of course, the first humans to see the Grand Canyon were “Native Americans,” migrating from Asia. The first white men to see it were Spanish soldiers headed by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, on an expedition from Mexico in 1540.

To sum it all up—the Grand Canyon, one of the largest and oldest rock formations in the world, is also one of its most amazing sights.

Canyon

By Ben

I looked a the pamphlet, and all that I found

Was the length, depth, and breadth of this trench in the ground.

It pointed out once that the canyon was great;

Besides that, it did not even try to relate

The immensity! This canyon truly is grand.

I don’t care that its coloring ranges from sand

To red dirt, to the color of stale apple juice

(Pardon me if I sound a bit like Doctor Seuss.)

But its beautiful hugeness is what makes it great!

Not its age, or the name of its tectonic plate,

But the towers, the river, the vertical walls

With a scale so enormous that here the mind stalls

And can’t comprehend. But that’s how it should be.

Not to know facts and figures, but simply to see

This wonderful natural gigantic rift…

So I’ll just toss this pamphlet right over the cliff.

IMG_1010

6. Sharing and Reflecting. Having students share their writing is important. These could be bound into a class book, shared in small groups—or any way your students will find valuable.  I displayed these around the classroom and involved the students, armed with post-its and pens, in a sort of gallery walk/read. I asked them to leave specific comments for the writers—this wasn’t the first time students had been asked to comment on their classmates writing. This may take some practice getting used to, both in terms of being positive and specific enough to be meaningful.

After doing something like this, I want my students to reflect on both the process and the products. Some possible questions for reflection: What part was most difficult for you? What part challenged you the most? What did you learn about yourself as a writer? Is there anything from this experience that you know you will use/think about the next time you write? Do you have a poet you enjoy reading?

7. More Walt Whitman. I do want to mention a book/series you may be interested in if you are looking for more Walt Whitman specifically, and student friendly poetry in general. The Poetry for Young People series published by Sterling offers collections by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others.

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Coming up on Gurus . . .

I’m not sure if I’ll only be preaching to the choir, but after a recent discussion with a school administrator, I feel the need to share some thoughts in defense of picture books. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about professional development in writing during the current school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.