Tag Archive: voice

Drowned City, a review by Vicki Spandel


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

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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

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

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


About Author Don Brown . . .

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

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

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



Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

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



Walter Dean Myer’s Literary Legacy–Pass It On


True confession–I’m one of those people, the kind who still receives a newspaper (The Oregonian, tossed onto my driveway, four days a week now instead of seven) and reads my magazines, after removing all the subscription cards, by holding them in my hands. Nearby, I keep scissors to cut out articles that interest me or might be interesting to a friend or my son, away at college. My good friend Barry, a retired professor of English is the master of clipping and sending (real mail delivered by the USPS) articles for me to read. Recently, I was sorting through a stack of clippings, some from Barry and some of my own, when I came across two articles I had been meaning to reread and perhaps even write about. The articles, from two different sources, were about the death on July 1, 2014, of author Walter Dean Myers. If his name doesn’t ring any bells inside your head, then I will have to ring them for you. (Visit http://www.walterdeanmyers.net for a brief but informative biography, complete bibliography, extensive award resume, and a video interview with Mr. Myers.)

Though Walter Dean Myers wrote over 100 books—picture books, novels, non-fiction—for young people, I want to focus on two, chosen because of the impact they had on me as a teacher and on my students as readers. I’ve always referred to books like these as gateway books—books that lead students to more books, to become readers of books (often for the first time), and often guide students to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the act of writing. The gateway experience is not limited to reading and writing revelations. The encounters readers have with certain characters or subject matter found in these books may assist students with personal issues in ways that the people in their lives aren’t able to offer.


In Bad Boy: a memoir, Mr. Myers shares his own reading history, beginning with his mother, who struggled to read, following along as she pointed to and read each word of the romance novels she loved. This was just the start. “I found, stumbled upon, was led to, or was given great literature. Reading this literature, these books, led me to the canvas of my own humanity…My reading ability led me to books, which led me to ideas, which led to more books and more ideas. The slow dance through the ideas led to writing.” (Page 200) His efforts to write were another “slow dance,” set to the tune of piles of rejection slips for his poems, short stories, and articles.

His lack of initial publishing success may have been less about his ability as a writer and more to do with what he was writing about. Thankfully, amidst all those rejection notices, Mr. Myers had his own gateway experience. “A turning point in my writing was the discovery of a short story by James Baldwin, ‘Sonny’s Blues.’ It was a beautifully written story, but more important, it was a story about the black urban experience. Baldwin, in writing and publishing that story, gave me permission to write about my own experiences. I was playing a lot of ball at the time, and my next story, about basketball, was accepted the first time I sent it out.” (Page 201) In an opinion piece titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” appearing in the New York Times only months before his death, Mr. Meyers again explained the impact of Baldwin’s short story on the direction of his writing. “By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map…Today I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they have all met.” (New York Times, March 15, 2014) In STG terms, I would say that Mr. Myers had found his writer’s voice. By writing honestly about his own landscape—growing up in poverty, struggling to find his identity as a young black man dealing with trouble at home and school, literally fighting for survival on neighborhood streets—he helped young people growing up in similar landscapes by giving them characters they could relate to and identify with. His books became gateways for young people, not just to further reading experiences but to opportunities for self-discovery, personal growth, day-to-day survival, and for hope of a brighter future.

 In the Classroom

As a middle school teacher, I felt it was important to know as much as I could about the books my students were reading, would be reading, or might be interested in reading. I wanted to make sure I could be a part of their book conversations or, more importantly, be the start of their book conversations. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, wrote, in a short tribute about Mr. Myers in the July 14, 2014 issue of Time, that his books explored “…the lives of African-American kids, who too often do not see themselves presented honestly and compassionately in literature.” I wanted to know about books like these so I could put them in the hands of my reluctant and non-readers, students who most needed that gateway experience to launch them into their own “slow dance” through books, ideas, writing, and self-discovery.

As a teacher, I believe that you need to know lots of gateway books (you have to have read them first) and you need to know your students well. Your relationship with the books and your relationship with your students will help you make relevant recommendations.

Here are two books by Walter Dean Myers that, once I discovered and read them, I offered to countless students (and teachers) with great success. I’m not going to say much about them other than I can’t recommend them enough. Dig in for yourself, discover the legacy of an important author, and most importantly, pass it on.



Fallen Angels. 2008. Walter Dean Myers. New York: Scholastic.

(This is the 2008 Special Anniversary Edition from Scholastic Paperbacks. The book was originally published in 1988 and won the 1989 Coretta Scott King Award.)

Genre: Novel—Vietnam War, coming of age story focusing on Richie Perry, a young man from Harlem who joins the army when he is not able to attend college.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

336 pages

Warning #1: This book does contain (appropriately) strong language. After all, the expression is not, “War is heck.” I believe it’s one of the reasons this book appeals to some students—not simply because it contains cursing, but because it’s true to the characters and the action.

Warning #2: It’s too easy to label this book as being a “book for boys,” a “war story,“ or a book about the “black experience.” The real characters and action in Fallen Angels speak to all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons.



Monster.1999. Walter Dean Myers. Harper Collins: New York.

(Winner of the 1999 Michael L. Printz Award, nominated for Coretta Scott King Award, Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Novel, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel—written in screenplay/journal format. An aspiring filmmaker, 16-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for being an accomplice to murder in an armed robbery that went bad.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

281 pages

Other Gateway Recommendations

Here are a few other gateway books, from a variety of authors—labeled as such because of the impact I have seen them have on student readers and writers.

(How about sharing some of your own gateway book titles? Send them to me in a comment, and I’ll pass them along to all STG readers.)


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 2007. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

230 pages


Speak.1999. Laurie Halse Anderson. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York.

(Nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

221 pages


Hatchet.1988. Gary Paulsen. Puffin Books: New York.

(Newberry Honor Book)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

195 pages


The House on Mango Street.1984. Sandra Cisneros. Vintage Contemporaries: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

110 pages


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. 2012. Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 9 and up

359 pages


Freak the Mighty.1993. Rodman Philbrick. Blue Sky Press: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

169 pages

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

I will be sharing some favorites from my summer reading, and it was a great summer for books.  I’ve been spending part of my Wednesdays down the street at our neighborhood elementary school. If all goes well, I will share some of my recent experiences with Mr. S’s wonderful fifth graders.

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.


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 conventions & presentation 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 conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e






In Just One Lifetime


If you watched any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, also known as the XXII Olympic Winter Games, you know how important numbers are to the athletes, officials, and spectators, both in terms of understanding the events and determining the outcomes. In fact, each sport has numbers or units peculiar to its type of competition. Here are a few examples from some popular events.

Figure Skating:

2 minutes and 50 seconds—length of the “Short Program”

4-4 ½ minutes—length of the “Long Program”


200 ft. x 100 ft.– Rink dimensions (compared to 200 x 85 in the NHL)

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

3:45.39—gold medal winning time (in minutes)

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

(BTW–The Olympics (not a stunning revelation) is an amazingly rich resource for practical applications of math vocabulary and concepts found in CC math standards: problem solving, place value, decimals, fractions, a range of calculations/computations, terminology, telling time, conversions, Roman numerals, ordinal/cardinal numbers, etc. Wow!)

The book Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives, by Lola Schaefer (one of my favorites from my holiday break reading), has nothing to do with the many different kinds of competition found in the Winter Olympics. But it has everything to do with important numbers in the ultimate competition in the lives of animals—survival!



Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. 2013. Lola Schaefer. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Informational picture/counting book, mixing math and science

Grade Levels: K and up

Features: Back matter—extended information on each featured animal, including scientific name, average–defined/explained mathematically, practice with concept of averaging.

40 pages (including back matter)

Visit lolaschaefer.com to find out more about Lola M. Shaefer and her books.


Each page in Lifetime begins with the phrase “In one lifetime,” matter-of-factly introducing an animal to readers by name, then offering a numerical fact about a specific physical characteristic or behavior. Young readers will want to pay close attention to the mixed-media illustrations—they match the animal’s important number! On one page, for instance, the author informs us that, “In one lifetime, this caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.” Look carefully at the illustration and you will count ten antler sets. We learn that the alligator will lay 550 eggs in its lifetime—Yep! All 550 are there. And the male seahorse, we are informed, will lay 1,000 eggs—have fun counting them! (I didn’t, but I’m sure illustrator Neal did.) Flip to the back of the book and you will find  more detailed information about each of the eleven animals and their important numbers.

The book opens with an informative statement/disclaimer from the author to clarify how she came up with her numbers. She tells us that she based her calculations on the “average adult life span of each wild animal” and researched information on each animal’s behaviors and physical characteristics. I appreciated that author Shaefer let’s us know that even though each animal belonging to a species may be different, because of her in-depth research and her attention to the math, she feels very confident about the accuracy of her averages and approximations—her numbers. In a back section, she informs readers, “Math gives you answers you can’t find any other way. Without math, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.” She speaks confidently to readers with the voice of an “expert,” and her confidence becomes a reader’s confidence in her as an authority.

 In the Classroom

1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You will want to read the back matter, as well, so you are aware of the more detailed content of the informative passages about each of the animals. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud, the illustrations could be shown to students using a document camera. I believe students will call for a second reading, especially if they want to try and count the antlers, spots, flowers, roosting holes, rattles, babies, etc.

2. As You Read (Ideas/Word Choice). Because there are only one or two sentences on each page (and the first sentence always begins with the pattern “In one lifetime…”), the author has to make strong word choices to make sure her message comes through focused and clear. A limited amount of text puts extra pressure on each word choice—choosing the most specific noun, the right adjective (if necessary), and the most precise verb to make sure readers are seeing and feeling the author’s ideas. I suggest doing a second reading of the book to keep track on chart paper of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the author has used on each page. It could be done like this:

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

You could do this in so many ways depending on the age level of your students (and the specific CCSS you may be focusing on). This would give your students a platform for understanding parts of speech and for sentence building in their own writing. An immediate practice for younger students could be to imitate the book’s pattern—In one lifetime—changing  it to In one recess, or In one day, etc. The emphasis would be on communicating an idea in one or two sentences by choosing the most descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Convention Alert!!—this would be an opportunity to talk about commas and why there needs to be one in sentences following this pattern.


In one recess, Cruz blasted the black and green soccer ball against the wall one hundred times.

3. Math One. This book is about animals and some of their important numbers—so let’s not forget about the math opportunities to be found. As you are reading the book, have your students help you keep a chart of the numbers. I suggest writing both the numerals and the number words spelled out. Ask your students to look for patterns, make predictions, etc. Conventions Alert!!—Discuss/practice/apply the conventions for spelling out numbers versus using numerals. (Notice how the author applied the conventions, staying consistent throughout.)

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


4. Math Two. The author has included in the back matter a section called, “What is an average?” Here she defines/explains the word as she has used it—a way to describe a typical or usual amount, and her reasoning for choosing the mathematical average (an expression of central tendency) for the purpose of calculating each animal’s number. To help readers understand, she uses the example of finding the average number of times a person might brush his/her teeth in a week. Younger writers might be interested in writing about themselves and their important number, not focused on a lifetime but based on an hour, day, week, month, year or a particular year in school (e.g. 2nd grade). Their numbers might be about saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lining up, school lunches eaten, tying shoes, hanging up a coat, sharpening a pencil, etc.

In a section called, “I Love Math,” Shaefer explains the importance of applying math to her scientific curiosity to help express what she wanted to say about animals’ lives. For older students, I would ask them to choose a mathematical concept—something from a standard they had been focusing on—and explain it using both words and number examples. Their audience could be another student, a parent, etc. These two sections serve as great examples of a focused message, clear communication through word choice, and being an “expert” on your topic.

5. Math Three. Younger students could use her examples in the “I Love Math” section to write their own “story” or word problems. Student writers would need to be sure to include all the necessary information and word clues to guide readers to the appropriate operation(s) and an opportunity to correctly solve the problem. Convention Alert!!—Writers will need to know the difference between a telling sentence—ending with a period—and a question sentence—ending with a question mark.

 Example (Actual word problem written by a 2nd grader I happen to know.)

Martin has 24 chocolate chip cookies. His best friend Ahmed has 20 oatmeal raisin cookies. How many cookies do they have all together?

6. Average—Without the Math. Though the concept of average is steeped in its mathematical roots, we often use the word as a synonym for usual, typical, normal, regular, or as another way to say mediocre, plain, or unexciting. Choose one of these meanings to launch students into explanatory writing of a different kind. Instead of explaining a concept or procedure, students could take a more personal path and write about—the “average” 6th grader interests, their activities on an average weekend or day off from school, what it means to be an “average” student, the traits of an “average” soccer player compared to a “skilled” player, etc. The writing could even head down the path of persuasive/argument (See STG post from January 31, 2014)—why being called an “average kid” might be a good thing but being called an “average student” might not, for example.

7. Research and Voice. Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

Lola Schaefer says, “I was curious about the lives of animals.” Her curiosity led to research—observation, reading, speaking with/listening to/digging into the work of known experts, etc. Following her lead, have your students select an animal they are curious about to begin “researching.” Depending on the grade level, the research could be done as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. It might involve some computer time, visits to the library, or a field trip to a zoo. As readers, we have confidence in Ms. Shaefer’s writing; her writer’s voice comes through because of her research efforts–she has become an “expert” and writes with that voice, just like your students will need to be for the sake of their readers. Their writing could follow the author’s pattern—finding the animal’s interesting/important number, with the outcome being a few sentences or stretching all the way to a few paragraphs or pages. The length might be connected to the purpose and audience of the writing—a class book written for a younger audience, a science fair-type display for adults, a full-blown research project aimed at convincing lawmakers to help protect a particular animal, etc.

8. Research—Narrative writing. The same research described above could be used to lead students into a piece of narrative/informational writing. In this writing, students would share what they have learned about their animal, including that animal’s significant number, by telling a “story,” fictional but factual story, based on research. The writer’s voice would be that of an expert but because of the created story, more personal, too.

9. Math Four. Since I’ve been so immersed in the Winter Olympics, I can’t help making one more math and writing connection between Lifetime and the Sochi Games. The unit of time in Lola Shaefer’s book is a lifetime—a unit of time varying in length depending on the type of animal and a myriad of other conditions. The events of the Olympics, Winter or Summer, deal with time broken down into units and sub-units so small they’re almost impossible to imagine—tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds. What could possibly happen in such a teeny amount of time? Older students might be interested in writing answers to this question (sentences, paragraphs, poetry) both in terms of Olympic outcomes—medals earned, dreams realized or shattered, etc., and in terms of human events, moments, and emotions.

10. Resources. Here are a few other highly recommended books—directly/indirectly relating to math, math writing, animals, or writing about animals—that you or your students might find useful.



Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices. 1991. Theoni Pappas. San Carlos: Wide World Publishing/Tetras.



How Fast is It? (How Strong is It?, How Big is It?). 2008. Ben Hillman. New York: Scholastic.


Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way. 2006. Betsy Franco. Culver City: Good Year Books.


Mathematicles. 2006. Betsy Franco. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

Vicki will be reviewing Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s.  Don’t forget, we are here for you and your student writers! Are you are  thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.





A New Classic: Wonder


Wonder. 2012. R. J. Palacio. New York: Random House. 310 pp. (excluding Appendix)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 4 and up.


“I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” So says 10-year old August (Auggie) Pullman, who longs to be ordinary in the most basic sense: He wants to blend in. He wants other ordinary kids to look at him and not “run away screaming” (p. 3). Is that too much to ask?

Auggie is ordinary in some ways: he loves ice cream, sports, and video games. He loves his family and his dog Daisy. There’s just one problem. Auggie was born with a facial deformity so severe that even after twenty-seven reconstructive surgeries, people find it hard to look at him without turning away. Can anyone (save his immediate family) get beyond Auggie’s appearance to the phenomenal person behind the face? That’s but one of several provocative questions raised in this riveting tale that grabs readers by the lapels from page one. Palacio’s writing rings with voice, and Wonder is enlivened with detail that takes us—like it or not—right back inside middle school happenings.

As the story opens, Auggie (for whom life has never been a cake walk) faces a particularly difficult challenge. He’s been home schooled by his mother all his life; now, his parents (his mother in particular) have decided he should break out into a bigger world, and they have enrolled him in a prestigious private school in Manhattan. At first, Auggie is understandably terrified. What could prove a difficult transition for any student feels to this previously sheltered 10-year-old like a surefire path to public degradation. As we soon discover, however, we underestimate Auggie at our own peril. From that dreaded first day of school to the wonderfully climactic graduation ceremony, we witness an homage to courage—and to kindness—in one of the most memorable coming of age stories in a long while.

Wonder is a book with grit and depth. Some of its characters are unlikeable—and not all undergo magical last-minute transformations, either. Hats off to Palacio for creating a world that is realistic enough to make us cringe at times, while still offering enough silver linings to satisfy our abiding belief in humanity. Auggie is a brilliantly imagined character who gains complexity throughout the book, and it’s a tribute to Palacio’s writing that while we empathize (who hasn’t endured some rough school experiences?) and cheer for him, we never pity him, even during some very dark moments. Instead, we admire his strength and patience, and his skill (that soars far beyond his years) in navigating emotionally choppy waters with a grace unique to his highly individual persona. Would we be as brave? Indeed, this is a book that invites us, repeatedly, to look at our own values and our own behavior. Hopefully, we will like and respect what we see.

In the Classroom

1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. It’s an outstanding read-aloud, with alternating moments of heroism, humor, despair, courage, and action. It’s fast-paced, high-interest, and full of variety—some of which comes from the fact that chapters are written in multiple voices. We hear first (and last) from Auggie, but in between we also hear from his sister Olivia and from other students with whom Auggie interacts. Chapters are short enough that you may have time to share several at once. Wonder also makes an outstanding choice for a smaller-group after-school book club.

2. Background. Much of Wonder deals with the rejection of people who look or seem different from ourselves. This is a highly sensitive subject, but one well worth broaching in order to prepare students to think seriously and deeply about Auggie’s experience. You may wish to spend some time discussing exclusion and inclusion in our society—particularly within school environments. Who gets included routinely? Who is excluded? Why do some people reject or avoid socializing with others? What are some of the most common motives for behaving this way? What are some of the forms that such rejection takes? How difficult is it to not go along with exclusion if one’s friends are engaging in this kind of behavior?

3. Opinion pieces. Is exclusion a form of bullying—even if it does not involve physical harm to the person targeted? And is it possible to take a strong personal stand against bullying? Take time to write about this. Since this can be a highly personal topic, you may want to assure students at the outset that they will not need to share what they write unless they feel comfortable doing so. If possible, write a piece of your own to share with the class. After writing, you may wish to discuss the topic of bullying further (see items 15 and 16 below).

4. Central Topic/Theme. What is Wonder’s central message? Is there more than one? Encourage students to write about this, and to share their writing in small groups. Then open the topic to class discussion. Suggestion: You may wish to do this more than once as you share the book together. Wonder is a book of some complexity, and students may discover more than one main theme (relating to, for example, kindness, bullying, friendship, courage, personal change and growth).

5. Organization. Wonder is a narrative, and is written chronologically. But is there more to the organizational structure than that? How much time lapses from the opening chapter through the closing chapter? Why might the author have chosen to encapsulate the story within this particular time frame? Also consider other elements that contribute to the overall organization. The book is divided into chapters, like most novels—but also into parts. Why? (Encourage students to notice that each part is written in a different voice. Also, the book starts out in Auggie’s voice, then returns to that voice at the end. Why is this significant?)

6. Voice/Narrative writing. What challenges does an author face in choosing to write a book in multiple voices? Discuss this. How hard is it for one writer to make different voices all sound authentic? Find out. Encourage students to try writing a two-person narrative in which a story is told from one point of view, then another. Each voice might be heard once—or multiple times. (Note: Students who feel ready to try it might create more than two voices.)

7. Character. The Common Core Standards for Narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through dialogue. Have students choose a character whose voice is featured in any part of this book. (Possibilities: Auggie, Olivia, Jack, Justin, Summer, Miranda.) Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze that character. What motivates this character? What character traits define him or her? Does this person change through the course of the book, and if so, in what way?

8. Expository writing. One of the book’s characters, Mr. Browne, has a monthly precept, a “life rule” we might say, that he writes on the board for his students. Discuss the concept of a precept: What is it, and how might it influence someone’s life? Review Mr. Browne’s list of precepts (see pages 311 and 312). Do your students have a favorite? Do you? Ask students to write a personal response to one of Mr. Browne’s precepts or to come up with one of their own. Create a class book. You may wish to follow the suggestion of the book and have students write their own postcard precepts (see pages 312 and 313) that they mail to you or to one another. Question: Do all people have precepts that they live by? Where do precepts come from anyway? (Suggestion: Create podcasts for weekly or monthly precepts at your school. Students can take turns writing these.)

9. Argument: philosophical questions. Wonder raises some serious philosophical questions. Following are a few suggestions for questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any one of these—or have students pose a question of their own to answer—orally, through a podcast, or in writing:
• Olivia seems happy to escape to high school where her younger brother August is not known and she does not have to be seen with him or explain anything about him. Is she justified in feeling this way, or is it wrong of her?
• At the beginning of the book, Auggie’s parents (particularly his mother) are urging him to take the big step of enrolling in a private school. Is this a good decision on their part?
• Auggie has a number of “friends” in this book. Which person would you consider to be his truest friend? Why? Cite evidence from the book to support your point of view.
• Characters in this book show kindness in a number of different ways. Cite two instances in which characters go out of their way to be “kinder than is necessary” (from the words of Mr. Tushman, pp. 299-300). Use quotations from the book to prove your point.
• At the end of the book, Mr. Tushman encourages the students from Auggie’s class to practice more kindness than they need to. Is this a good precept by which to live one’s life? Is it realistic? Why or why not?

10. Comparison/Contrast. Have any of your students read the book Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (see our Jan 3, 2011 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparative review of the two pieces. What do the two books have in common? (Consider characters, voice, organization, appeal to certain readers, themes, etc.) Are the books different in any important ways that you notice? If so, how? (Note: Encourage students to use quotations from each book to support their points of comparison.)

11. Beginning and ending. The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion and endings that bring things to resolution. Look carefully at the opening chapter and the final five or six chapters of Wonder. Does the opening set up the story in a way that draws us in and helps define the situation and the main character, August? Was the ending what you expected, and does it bring resolution to the story? Talk about why endings matter so much to us—whether they’re endings of books, TV programs, or films. Have you or your students ever been deeply disappointed by an ending—and if so, when and why? Ask students to consider whether the ending of Wonder is precisely what they would have hoped for—or whether they might have written something different. Some students may wish to create varied endings of their own. (Note: I happen to love this ending, with its emphasis on the importance of kindness. But endings, like most things in literature, are highly personal—and often controversial!)

12. Presentation. Take time to notice the drawings that open each part of the book. What details stand out? What do these drawings tell us? Also notice the quotations that accompany the drawings. Why do you think the author chose to include them? Finally, notice the chapter headings; this writer uses words, not numbers, to define the chapters. Is this, in part, an organizational strategy? How so?

13. Description. Auggie tells us in the opening chapter, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (p. 3). The author withholds any detailed description of Auggie’s face until we are well into the book (see pages 88 and 89). Why might she want to wait? Read this description carefully, and discuss it or write personal responses. It is very vivid and detailed. Does that make it difficult to read? What is our emotional response? What response is the author hoping for? Olivia, the voice in this chapter, asks this question: “When he looks in the mirror, does he see the Auggie everyone else sees?” (p. 89). Is this a question that could be asked of anyone? Perhaps the person anyone sees in the mirror is different from the person others see. What do your students think? Write about this.

14. Analyzing dialogue. Author R. J. Palacio has been praised for the authenticity of the dialogue in her writing. Ask your students to consider whether they agree with this assessment, and if so, to cite examples of dialogue they feel works particularly well. In particular, consider the chapter titled “Letters, Emails, Facebook, Texts” (page 160ff). What does this chapter reveal about the characters involved that we could not learn through straight narrative? Do your students like this narrative technique? Have them create a narrative scene of their own involving two or more characters who communicate through letters, emails, texts, etc. Talk about the challenges involved in writing this way. Some students may wish to “perform” their scenes with partners.

15. Informational writing: bullying. As a class or in small writing groups, do some research on the subject of bullying. Is it on the increase? What forms does it take? Is it exacerbated by social media, which can sometimes make the tormenting of another person more public? What is being done to stop it? (Suggestion: If possible, make personal interviews part of this research. For example, students might speak with a school counselor or psychologist, or with an adult who recalls an experience with bullying that he or she is willing to talk about openly.)

16. Argument: bullying. Following your research on the topic of bullying, invite students to write an argument on the best way(s) to stop or prevent bullying at school. Such arguments should include documented evidence that a particular approach is effective. (Suggestion: Numerous books and articles have been written on this topic. If possible, make some available within your classroom while students are doing their research.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .
In a recent workshop, a teacher raised a very important question: If we are not going to cover students’ writing with corrections, but we DO want to teach conventions, how exactly do we go about that? Just what are the alternatives? Drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas—along with resources that include outstanding conventions lessons! Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Does the Common Core Address Voice?

How much does voice matter?

It’s no secret that voice is my favorite among the six traits. It is, after all, the primary reason for writing, and one of two main reasons for reading—the other being to get information.

Donald Graves called voice the “driving force” of writing and the “imprint of ourselves” on the page. To value voice is to value individuality—and the reverse is equally true. The less we value it, the more we encourage young writers to sound like clones of one another. Do we want this? “To ignore voice,” Graves said, “is to present the [writing] process as a lifeless, mechanical act. Divorcing voice from process is like omitting salt from stew, love from sex, or sun from gardening” (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1986, 227).

A world without seasoning, love, or sunshine sounds bleak indeed, but that is precisely the writing world we will inherit if we bleach voice from students’ writing—including informational writing and argument.

Wait, though. Are we doing that? In some cases, I believe we are, yes. And it could be, in part, because a superficial interpretation of the Common Core could lead us to conclude that voice doesn’t really matter, doesn’t even belong in some writing, that it’s excess frosting on an already well decorated cake. Let’s reconsider.

What voice looks like in the Common Core

First of all, let’s be honest. You won’t find the word “voice” anywhere in the Common Core standards for writing or language. But that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. There are many words to describe voice: style, tone, technique, and connection to the audience, among others. And each of these things is emphasized in the Common Core.

But why beat around the bush? Why don’t the Common Core standards simply call, directly and clearly, for students to “write with more voice”? Frankly, I wish they did. But I understand why this did not happen. I am sure the writers of the standards were very concerned about misinterpretation—and with good reason.

Everywhere I go, I ask teachers what they think of first when they hear the word voice. The number one answer, hands down, is personality. Now, make no mistake. I think personality is part of voice. This is why we can distinguish between Edgar Allan Poe and Jerry Seinfeld. But we can’t very well have a writing standard—something we require students to meet—that states in effect,

  • Students will write with vivid and captivating personality.

We can wish for that—but we can’t demand it (except when we go to the bookstore, of course). Standards aren’t, after all, lists of wishes. They’re lists of requirements. It’s one thing to require clear expression, and quite another to demand that students mesmerize us. A standard calling for voice might seem to do precisely that, even if that were not the intent.

On the other hand, voice is more—much more—than personality. Once we define it more thoroughly and expansively, we recognize that much of what is required in the Common Core contributes to voice in a very big way.

More than personality

Every single one of the following things contributes directly to voice (in all genres, not just narrative or memoir)—and every one, I would argue, is worth teaching or encouraging if we want students to write prose worth reading (or one day, publishing):

  • Honesty (CC requirement for appropriate tone)
  • Curiosity about the topic (CC requirement for good research)
  • Confidence about one’s knowledge of the topic (Ditto)
  • An eye for detail (CC requirement for effective use of detail)
  • Capability to select the most intriguing details available (Ditto)
  • Conciseness (CC requirement for clear, effective word choice)
  • Avoidance of repetition (Ditto)
  • Avoidance of qualifying language—e.g.,In some cases, certain observers noted, it seemed almost likely that the plan might one day come close to working (Ditto)
  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

When I read Bill Bryson’s book In a Sunburned Country, I don’t find myself saying, “Wow—some personality!” No. Instead, I say to myself, “Here’s a guy who really knows a lot about Australia—and talk about research. He took time to dig up details that matter—and he held my attention from page one right through to the end.” Just imagine reading informational reports or arguments from your students and feeling blown away by each writer’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic. Imagine reading a report you could not put down. We can feel like that all the time if we expand our definition of voice, and teach the things that contribute to voice: e.g., the things on the bulleted list (all of which are linked to the Common Core).

So—when it’s said that voice is nowhere to be found in the Common Core, I respectfully disagree. Elements that contribute to voice (such as detail, knowledge, clarity, strong leads or conclusions) abound in the Common Core. And then, there’s that stuff about tone and style . . .

DIRECT Common Core Connections to Voice:

Style, Tone, Technique, and Ability to Reach the Audience

Have a quick look at the Common Core standards for writing (www.commoncore.org). Standard 1 calls for argument that establishes and maintains a “formal style.” Standard 2 calls for the same with respect to informational writing. Standard 3 asks that narrative be written with an “effective technique.”

By grades 11 and 12, these standards have expanded ever so slightly to require both argument and informational reports that “establish and maintain an objective style and formal tone.” Standard 4, which addresses narrative, calls for “clear and coherent writing in which development, organization, and style are appropriate to the task, purpose and audience.”

Style and tone are not precisely the same as voice, though they are related. Still, we need to be careful how we interpret words like “tone.” The word tone, according to the dictionary, means tenor, manner, or attitude. A formal tone conveys a certain respect for both topic and purpose—which, in the case of informational writing or argument, is to convey information clearly and without bias. Formal can mean proper, appropriate, or even reserved; note, however, that it does not have to imply dull, lifeless, tedious, or sleep-inducing.

Style, by dictionary definition, is much more expansive. It means approach or technique. So while tone refers to the sound of the writing, style encompasses all the ways a writer crafts words to ensure that the message he or she intends to get across is both understandable and engaging enough to keep the reader reading.

Technique essentially means method (or skill), so a writer’s technique for making narrative compelling could most certainly involve voice—together with a captivating plot, unforgettable characters, and settings that draw us into the time and place of the story.

How about the word objective? Here’s where things get tricky—and where, I think, we must be very careful not to misguide our students. The word objective, according to the dictionary, can mean—among other things—impartial, unbiased, or detached. The words impartial and unbiased have a very positive connotation that suggests we can trust the writer not to unfairly impose his or her personal biases on any information, thereby distorting truth or reality. So far so good. The word detached suggests something else altogether.

Detached means aloof, indifferent, unemotional, uninvolved, or distant. This kind of writing is, in fact, fully appropriate in some contexts: e.g., for legal contracts or briefs; purely informational documents such as dictionaries or encyclopedias; medical journals; scientific summaries or reports; how-to brochures on filing taxes or preparing wills and trusts; police reports; certain technical documents, and so on. People read such documents because, like a medical student cramming for an exam or a meteorologist predicting a storm, they have a pressing need for raw information in its most unadorned form.

Other documents, however, are designed to make information accessible to a general audience that is not driven by such a need—and will not keep reading without a compelling reason. Writing of this sort would include histories, memoirs, journalistic reports, editorials, reviews, nonfiction books of all sorts, signage for museums or other similar venues, documentary scripts, travel literature, and many similar writings you can think of from your own life experience.

To suggest that all informational writing or all persuasive writing is alike is absurd. And so, we need to teach our students to identify not just the broad umbrella genre—e.g., informational writing—but the smaller, purpose-and-audience-specific genre, e.g., textbook, informational flyer, film review, jury summons. That way, it will be far easier to achieve the right voice—or if you prefer, tone, style, and technique.

Using Literature to Teach Informational Voice

There is NO better way to teach voice in informational or persuasive writing than through literature. To teach writing in which voice is deliberately suppressed (so that the message is dominant and free of distractions), we need to share judicial, medical, scientific, statistical or technical documents.

When teaching informational writing directed at a general audience (as opposed to specialists), our choices have to hit the right note of formality—respectful and reserved—without being dry, dull, or dispassionate.  In their own writing, we want students to—

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Otherwise, what on earth is the point? Here are some suggested titles we think you’ll find useful in helping students hit the right informational note.


Hitting the Right Note (3 of Vicki’s Favorites)

1. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. 2000. New York: Broadway Books. Nonfiction history, travel, and memoir—with significant infusion of science and geography. Written for adults, but selected passages are appropriate for sharing with all ages.


I chose Bryson’s book for several reasons—it’s a book I loved enough to read more than once (and then I purchased the CD so I could hear Bill read it, too); I’ve carried it with me to workshops for 12 years and my passionate reviews have, I’m confident, sold hundreds of copies to teachers at all levels; this is a book that defies narrow labeling, brilliantly combining numerous sub-genres; and finally, the book is thoroughly researched, impeccably meeting and surpassing every research-related standard of the Common Core.

Read the whole book on your own first, but keep a pencil (or yellow highlighter) in hand because you’ll find many passages to mark for rereading—or to share with students. You won’t want to share everything (this is a book for adults), but look for carefully chosen details about topics we might not explore on our own. The language is lively (precise, sometimes sharply comic) but never simplistic. Bryson can go from witty or descriptive to technical in the blink of an eye. What’s especially remarkable about this book is that we learn something new on virtually every page—and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of good informational writing? Here’s a passage that brims with energy, while definitely treating us to more than just a list of facts. Notice how the details combine to make a point:

Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science (page 7).


2. Oh, Rats! The Story of Rats and People by Albert Marrin. 2006. New York: Dutton Children’s Books. Nonfiction history and zoology. Written for upper elementary through middle school, but selected passages may be shared with students of all ages.


Often, I’ll introduce this book to teachers by calling it “a research paper so good it got published.” I say this not only because it’s true (Marrin’s research is incredible in all of his books), but also because I hope to erase the line between student writing and literature. How different might our instruction (or indeed our standards) be if that line did not exist?

His introduction, called “The Rat and I,” tells the story of Marrin’s first encounter with a rat (at age 7)—and the terror that sent him racing over wet cement and into his father’s waiting arms. His calm father advised learning about rats to dispel his fear—and so began years of research that led to a book. Your students may enjoy writing similar introductions that show why they chose their particular topics.

Marrin’s presentation is straightforward and factual, but it’s continually enlivened by his knack for tracking down details we love hearing about. One of my tests for the efficacy of any informational piece is how much I can recall days—or even weeks—after reading. Here is one passage I’ll think of for some time to come:

A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch. An adult rat’s jaws are hundreds of times more powerful than a person’s. Large muscles allow it to bite down with a force of 7,000 pounds per square inch, about the same force as a crocodile’s jaws (page 10).

You can bet money that I wouldn’t have researched rats on my own. Upon discovering Marrin’s book, I learned how much I’d been missing.


3. What’s Eating You? Parasites—The Inside Story by Nicola Davies. 2007. Somerville: Candlewick Press. Nonfiction zoology. All ages—simple enough for upper elementary, but appealing even to adults, thanks in part to Neal Layton’s zany illustrations.


Nicola Davies’ books are irresistible because (1) she tells us things we didn’t know before, and (2) she explains things so clearly that readers feel like experts. And if you were looking for a recipe for informational voice, those two points would give it to you—almost. Add a dash of unabridged enthusiasm because Davies has an “Imagine that!” tone that is highly infectious. You can probably think of informational texts you would not dream of reading aloud; with this one, you won’t be able to wait.

Davies’ language is so stunningly clear and straightforward that it’s easy to underestimate just how much information she is sharing. Her talent for making the complex simple gives all readers—even the less skilled—immediate access to information, as in this passage about tapeworms:

Tapeworms can live in your intestine and grow to 60 feet long! Their bodies are shaped like a tape measure and are made of hundreds of little flattened segments. Instead of a head, they have a thing called a scolex, a knob with a series of hooks and suckers on it that holds on to the inside of the intestine. They don’t have eyes because there’s no light to see with inside an intestine, and they don’t have legs because they don’t go anywhere (page 27).

Creates quite a picture, doesn’t it? Think you’ll remember it tomorrow? Well, there you go.

Lessons Learned

From Davies, Marrin, and Bryson we learn these lessons about achieving informational voice:

  • Choose a topic you love
  • Do your research
  • Don’t be afraid to get excited over a special detail
  • Teach the reader something new
  • Don’t tell everything—tell what’s unforgettable
  • Don’t just list facts—make a point
  • Write clearly enough to reach even beginning readers
  • Create pictures in readers’ minds


Hitting the Right Note (3 of Jeff’s Favorites) 

1.  The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Art by Deborah Dancy. 2008. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong. Nonfiction, true autobiographical narrative, with accompanying poems. Appropriate for grade 6 to adult audiences.


Many of you may be familiar with Marilyn Nelson’s writing, in particular her award winning book, Carver: A life in Poems, a collection of poetry and photographs focused on the life of George Washington Carver. In The Freedom Business, Marilyn again uses original poetry, to add an extra layer of texture, richness, and insight to the life and voice of her subject, Venture Smith. A portion of his 1798, self-written life narrative, is included in this volume. It provides both the original voice and inspiration to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry, which appears side-by-side with the excerpts from Mr. Smith’s narrative. The watercolor and ink washes/collages of Deborah Dancy are not merely adornments to each page. The art provides a sepia-toned landscape to Venture’s story and are evocative of the symbols and themes of his life—slavery, chains, relentless work, disappointment, patience, and even joy.

Mr. Smith, born Prince Broteer Furro in Guinea around 1729, was taken from his home country by slave traders when he was only six years old. His narrative begins in Africa, highlighting early moments of his life with family, continues on his voyage across the Atlantic to Rhode Island where he is bought and sold several times, and ends with him a free man, with land and property. The voice of Venture’s narrative, written in 18th century language, seems almost passive and stoic as he describes the realities of his life as a slave, yet every moment rings with authenticity. In this passage, Venture has a run-in with his master’s son.

For my master having set me off my business to perform that day and then left me to perform it, his son came up to me in the course of the day, big with authority, and  commanded me very arrogantly to quit my present business and go directly about what he should order me…He then broke out into a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head therewith; but I as soon got another and defended myself with it, or otherwise be might have murdered me in his outrage. (page 34)

Marilyn Nelson’s poem, Two Masters (ca 1750), written as Venture in the first person, invites readers into this same moment and provides further insight into Venture the slave and 18th century man, and his conflict with his master’s son.

…One morning, Master had given me a task and gone

     away for the day. Swaggering with confidence,

     his peach-cheeked son gave me a contrary order.

     I told him I’d promised to complete a job for my master.

     I had no right to refuse his enterprise

     he yelled, in his eyes no spark of charity.


     He snatched a pitchfork. I weighed fight against faith

     for one moment, then snatched the other one.

     We faced off like devils going about their business,

     he big with arrogance, claiming authority… (page 37)


Venture’s own narrative voice and the voice of Venture that comes alive through Nelson’s poetry, blend together beautifully, bringing to readers a greater understanding and important historical perspective. Primary source material coupled with poetry—very exciting! Teachers may see this as a model for an alternative to the traditional history report. And this may be just the ticket (as Vicki outlined above) to help students:

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Interested, engaged, passionate writers and readers—imagine that!


2. Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City by Richard Platt. 2009. Illustrated by Manuela Cappon. New York: Kingfisher. Nonfiction history, reference. Grades 4-adult.


I’m a big fan of Richard Platt’s work, especially Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Roman Diary: The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini: Captured and Sold as a Slave in Rome—AD 107, and Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter. These three are excellent examples of a writer using “the power of extensive research coupled with the capability to select the most intriguing details availableto create voices that inspire readers to keep reading.” Simply? Platt’s voice invites you in and keeps you reading.

In Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City, Richard Platt gives readers an informational and visual trip across time, tracing London’s history from Neolithic times to the present as the city gears itself for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The book is really an ultra-detailed timeline, following the development of one geographic location, one city—London, England—its people, culture, architecture, and government—as it grew and changed over thousands of years. Richard Platt and illustrator Manuela Cappon have filled this book with fascinating text, rich detailed artwork with captions/labels, a valuable glossary, and helpful index. At first glance this book may appear to be the kind that readers will experience by browsing—it’s so full of information—but all you have to do is stop and read the text on one page, and you will be convinced to carefully read all that each page has to offer. Remember Vicki’s list of all the elements of writing that contribute to voice? Here are four that directly apply to this book:

  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

Each page begins with an inviting lead sentence, and closes out with the kind of wrap-up that brings readers right back to the writer’s focus. Here are a couple examples of leads and wrap-ups:

The Great Fire, A.D. 1666 (page 27)

First sentence:

Hot and crackling, yellow tongues of flame lick from the windows of a bakery on Pudding Lane.

Last sentence:

But even before the ashes are cold, London’s leaders are planning a new city.

Neolithic Camp, 3500 B.C. (page 6)

First sentence:

On a low, muddy bank in the middle of the shallow, winding River Thames, stealthy hunters hurl stone-tipped spears at a group of plump geese.

Last sentence:

Some will settle here for good, marking the beginning of the place we now call “London.”

In between these openings and closings are, of course, sentences and paragraphs that expand on the important information relative to the specific time period. (This book is not only a great resource for leads and wrap-ups, it abounds with terrific examples of transition sentences that bridge each paragraph.) Completing each page are the detailed illustrations of the location from a bird’s-eye view, allowing readers to follow the development of London from camp to bustling modern city. These captioned illustrations/diagrams/insets/cross-sections are as important as the text in creating and maintaining the writer’s voice. Each works in concert with the other to both intrigue and inform readers.

One other aspect of this book should not be overlooked—it is a great example of the presentation part of the trait of Conventions and Presentation. The inclusion of timelines, a glossary, and the blend of art and text, will offer students a model of what can be done beyond the encyclopedic text that students are often encouraged to produce in wooden, fill-in-the-blank science and social science “research reports.”


 3.  Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey by Gary Golio. Paintings by Rudy Gutierrez. 2012. Boston: Clarion Books. Non-fiction/biography, picture book. Grades 4—adult.


If you are a Sixtraitgurus regular, you may recall (Check the archives—April 2012) that I wrote about Gary Golio’s amazing book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow; A Story of the young Jimi Hendrix.  Like Jimi Hendrix was to rock music and the electric guitar, John Coltrane was to jazz and the tenor saxophone. Each pushed their instruments and genres to the extreme, before shattering musical boundaries and inspiring musicians with their vision and particular genius. And also like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane’s life ended prematurely, and most likely from his drug and alcohol abuse as a younger man.

Author Golio never shies away from this aspect of Coltrane’s life but places it in the proper context of the special lure of drugs to musicians looking to ease the pressures of performing, touring, and searching for their creative muse in an ever changing, cut-throat business. Gary Golio is not only an author of acclaimed books, he is a social worker and licensed therapist who counsels young people on drug/alcohol addiction issues. As a reader, his sensitivity to the world of addiction is apparent in the respectful voice he finds for telling the stories of his subjects.

As Vicki framed it earlier, Gary hits the right note of formality with his book about John Coltrane. The book is a biography, homage, and cautionary tale wrapped up in one. He honors his subject by telling the truth, while clearly caring about John Coltrane and his music.

Moving back to Mama’s house in Philadelphia, John saw his world come to a sudden stop. His body was sick, and his pockets were empty.

     Now he had to choose, between the dead end of drugs or a life rich with music.

     Waking one morning, John remember his grandfather’s words—the promise of Spirit, and of healing. He asked Mama and Naima for help.

     With nothing to eat and only water to drink, he stayed alone in his room, resting and praying, as the drugs slowly left his body. It was painful, but John felt that he was being cleansed—made new again.

     When he came out, a few days later, he was free. (Page 25)


As I suggested in my review of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, without an accompanying CD of John Coltrane’s music, how will the uninitiated reader capture a sense of John Coltrane’s pioneering jazz sound? And again, my answer brings readers back to the art that flows across each page. Rudy Gutierrez’s inspired, spirit-filled art—acrylic, ink, pencil, mixed media—provides the right note of lightness or darkness appropriate to each moment in Coltrane’s life. The images are bold, subdued, geometric then organic, reflecting the improvisational spirit of bebop and the blend of sounds and styles that filled Coltrane’s head and heart. They are as essential to the reader’s experience as the author’s voice, created through well-researched, careful selection of details and his passion for his topic.

(Gary does highlight a couple of John Coltrane’s important recordings—Giant Steps and A Love Supreme. Even if you say you are not a jazz lover, finding and listening to even a portion of both will be the last bricks in building your understanding and appreciation for John Coltrane. The voice of John Coltrane as created by Gary Golio in Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey and the voice of Coltrane’s saxophone—the perfect combo!)

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned from authors Smith/Nelson, Platt, and Golio about achieving informational voice are similar to the lessons Vicki highlighted from the authors she selected, but I will add just a couple more (with an important tip of the cap to Mary Pipher, who described voice in Writing to Change the World as “This offering of the library of self”):

  • Do your research and open wide the “library of self”
  • Don’t be afraid to go beyond the limits of the traditional “report”
  • Teach yourself something new, then teach it to your reader
  • Voice can be enhanced by exciting, appropriate Presentation


A Closing Thought: What motivates students to write?

In Writers: Teachers and Children at Work (1986, 244), Donald Graves offers this reflective comment:

Schools forget the source of power in children’s writing. The school experience can cut down egos or remove voice from the writing, and the person from the print, until there is no driving force left in the selection. We then hear the familiar questions, “How can we motivate them into writing? How can we get them to write?”

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Word Choice, taking a close look at literature you can use to teach use of strong verbs, clear language, descriptive detail, and sensory language—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


Voice: What is it? Does it matter? How do we teach it?

What is it?

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

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

Does voice matter?

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

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

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

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

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

How do we teach it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thought . . .

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


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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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