Tag Archive: writing instruction


Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. 2016. Afterword by Martha White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Biographic chapter book

Levels: Like White’s own work, this book speaks to virtually all ages. It is written for mid-elementary and up, but the illustrations will make it appealing even to very young readers, and the details will intrigue everyone, including adults.

Features: Irresistible illustrations in Melissa Sweet’s inimitable style; carefully selected family photos; telling and fascinating examples of White’s original handwritten drafts showing his notes and revisions; exceptionally thorough timeline, complete with book covers and other illustrations; a touching Afterword by White’s granddaughter Martha; revealing author’s notes from Melissa Sweet, detailing her hands-on research for the book; bibliography and index.

 some-writer

Overview

“I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since” (1). This opening line from Melissa Sweet’s reverent and captivating look at the life of beloved author E. B. White touched a nerve. I too grew up loving the sound of a manual typewriter. My father, a court reporter, typed his own depositions until he could afford a stenographer (that, eventually, became my first job). When he replaced his old Remington, he gave it to me. I was about seven. And though I didn’t type very fast at first, I was enchanted by the way this machine transformed the look of my letters and stories. Of course, electric typewriters and computers came along and made everything easier. But only someone who has hammered out copy on an old Remington or Royal or Corona can appreciate how nostalgic the very sight of a typewritten letter makes us old-time writers feel. You don’t have to love typewriters, however, to appreciate Sweet’s book. It’s one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.

From cover to cover, Some Writer! is positively gorgeous. Before I could settle down enough to read, I leafed through it several times, just soaking in the beauty. Sweet is a gifted, highly original artist, and her work is showcased here with a brilliant layout. It’s like walking through a literary garden. Pages feature a mix of Sweet’s endearing and folksy style, together with handwritten copy, Garth Williams’ charming and often hilarious drawings of the famous spider Charlotte, irresistible family photos—the kind you’d frame if they were yours—and a delightful blend of modern fonts with the occasional letter or memorable quotation written in the quirky, irregular type of the old Corona.

The text itself, minus the writer’s notes and other extras at the end, runs just over 130 pages, and they speed by. This book is everything you want a biography to be: not a stiff march through a dry fact-encumbered history, but an intimate peek into the everyday doings of someone we already love through his work. In one delightful anecdote, we discover that the White family thought of themselves as “city people,” but spent summers at Belgrade Lakes in New York, where Elwyn’s father rented two cabins. “The brothers,” Sweet tells us, “studied tortoises, tadpoles, and toads.” Regardless of weather, the whole family would crowd into the small skiff they named Jesse (after White’s water-fearing mother) and head for town. There, Elwyn’s father would buy a case of Moxie soda, “assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular as Moxie” (10). Little details like this—White’s father viewing Coca-Cola as the newfangled drink—make us feel as close to Elwyn as if we were attending a family picnic at the lake.

Other vignettes reveal that White was a good student, an avid reader, a musician (of sorts), a painfully shy person (something that remained true into his adult years), a lover of animals big and small, and a self-styled adventurer who loved hiking through the woods or getting out on the water. He began writing at a young age, winning his first literary award before he was ten (20). For years, White had his heart set on attending Cornell, but upon graduating from high school, felt it was his duty to join the Service and fight in World War I. Perhaps it’s lucky for us that the Army rejected him: he was too thin. So—on to Cornell, where he would acquire his life-long nickname Andy, and meet Professor William Strunk, Jr. We all know how that turned out.

To anyone who knew how shy White was, it was no surprise that the only thing he feared more than public speaking was talking to girls—they “terrified him” (19). That all changed, however, when he met Katharine Sergeant Angell. Katharine already had two children from another marriage, but she and White would welcome a third, Joel (called “Joe”), the light of White’s life. He would say at one point, “To a writer, a child is an alibi. If I should never in all my years write anything worth reading, I can always explain that by pointing to my child” (50). Within a short time, he would never need an alibi again.

Reading this book is a supremely joyful experience—one that no fan of E. B. White should miss. Every page brings another delightful discovery. Through Sweet’s words, White emerges as a deeply good person, someone who cared both about people and about the earth itself. He was humble and optimistic, surely two rare qualities these days. And though an indisputable genius, White never craved or sought attention in any form; he was genuinely happy on the farm. He loved children, and admired them for the right reasons—for their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity. White once wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around” (128). We don’t need to dig far. That voice that calls to us from the pages of Charlotte’s Web is no put-on; that’s E. B. White himself, as open and honest as the sky. When we lose a writer like White, the books remain as reminders and clues to that person’s innermost mind and heart. No wonder we treasure them. Sweet’s touching tribute makes a fine addition to an already unique collection.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. You may want to read Some Writer! more than once before sharing it with students. The text is so rich with detail that you simply can’t take it all in at once, and the illustrations add much to both the information and the voice. Looking at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that the book is divided into thirteen chapters, and one chapter is probably enough to share aloud at one time, or to discuss with a small group. Be sure to use a document projector so students do not miss even the tiniest feature of Sweet’s incredible paintings and sketches.

charlottes-web2

Background. Are your students familiar with E. B. White’s books? Some may have heard Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little read at home or school, or perhaps read these books on their own. Talk about what they know now and how they feel about E. B. White’s books. Are any familiar with the book titled The Elements of Style? Show them the books if you have copies. If some or most of your students have not read at least one of White’s books, you may want to choose one to share aloud prior to discussing the biography.

It’s also helpful to students—or any readers—to understand the time in which E. B. White lived. He was born into a very different world in 1899. Give the-elements-of-stylestudents time to do a little research to learn what life was like in those times. Who was president? What did people do for work—or entertainment? How many attended college? What modern conveniences or appliances did they have? What methods of transportation did they use?

William McKinley

William McKinley

 

typewriter4And by the way, what the heck is a typewriter? As I noted in my overview, the book opens with E. B. White expressing his love for the click of the typewriter keys. It would not be surprising if many of your students had no idea what a typewriter is. If you have access to one, bring it into class and let students type on it to feel the effort those keystrokes require compared to today’s turbo-charged keyboards! They may be surprised! Also note how different the print itself looks. It’s not sleek and modern. It’s bumpy and uneven, sometimes blurry in spots. And writers in White’s time could not choose from hundreds of fonts, something we take for granted today. How would it seem to produce important work like a book on this sort of machine? How long would it take—and what if you made a mistake? Could people type 100-120 words a minute on this primitive device? Answer: They could—and did!typewriter3

 

Format and genre. This is a biography, something different from an autobiography or memoir. Help your students feel comfortable with these slightly different, but related terms. A biography can be described as an account of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is an account of someone’s life written by the person him- or herself. A memoir is an anecdotal narrative based on firsthand experience. Memoirs often focus on a particular period or periods in a person’s life, and so may or may not be as complete as an autobiography.

car-driven-in-1899Central message. The central message in any biography answers the question, What was ______ really like? Instead of addressing this question all at once at the end of the book, try asking it chapter by chapter as author Melissa Sweet slowly reveals more—and more—about her subject. You might keep a running list of characteristics that describe E. B. White, adding to it as you go. By the way, notice the chapter titles. They’re creative, don’t you think? Do they also provide us with clues about each chapter’s content—and consequently, about White himself? Consider the importance of such clues to a reader. Would chapter titles or subtitles be something your students could use in their own writing to guide readers through a story or discussion?

Showing, not telling. If writing teachers have a favorite mantra, it’s “show, don’t tell.” Yet few things are more difficult to teach than this concept. Look for passages that show us something about E. B. White and his experiences without telling us outright. Consider this passage about a time Elwyn read a poem aloud from a stage in his school:

It had the line Footprints on the sands of time, but Elwyn’s words came out the tands of sime. Other kids started laughing and the moment on stage became even worse than En had imagined it would be. He could not finish. He vowed never to go up on a stage again. (3)

What is the author trying to show us about Elwyn in this passage?

A word about names . . . Notice, by the way, that E. B. White is called “En” here. Throughout his life, he goes by several different names. Have you or any of your students had this experience? Talk about what it is like to have more than one first name or nickname. Should a person be able to choose a favorite? Does E. B. White eventually do this?

Illustrations—and voice. As you go through the book notice the many forms illustrations take, and talk about the “flavor” they give to the narrative. Here are just a few examples:

  • Photographs
  • Paintings by author/illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Cartoons
  • Quotations
  • Drawings by E. B. White
  • Handwritten and typed text

Do the illustrations contribute to the voice of this particular book? In what way? What sort of voice do your students hear in this book? Boisterous? Quiet? Conversational? Comedic? Authoritative? Reverent? Or something else . . .

Do your students find the mix of illustrations (paintings, photos, etc.) appealing? Why? Have they considered mixing different types of illustrations in any of their own written work?

Thinking small. Choosing a topic can be one of the most challenging issues a writer faces. At one point, E. B. White confesses that he finds it satisfying to write about “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart” (37). Your students might feel the same way.

Get them started by modeling the brainstorming and selection of small topics. It’s easy—and your students will love it! Here are a few topics I would list as students look on (and yes, my list changes all the time, and by the time you read this, I’ll have half a dozen new ones I haven’t thought of yet):

  • BIG snow—and having too much of a good thing!img_2902
  • Tips for making really good scones
  • Relearning bridge—what’s fun, what’s hard
  • How birds stay alive in winter
  • How to look better at bowling than you are
  • Keeping in touch with friends far away
  • What I love about Tana French mysteries
  • Why sitcom laugh tracks are annoying
  • How long to keep leftovers before you can pitch them without guilt
  • Times when it’s simply NOT all right to look at your iPhone

These are little things on my mind right now. Your list won’t look anything like this—naturally. That’s the point. Topic lists are personal because as E. B. White discovered, we do our best writing about things close to our heart.

After modeling your list, break students into small groups and have each group come up with their “top 12 topics.” Share these aloud, then post them. Students can copy favorites into writing journals for later reference.

Where do you get your ideas? This question is a favorite one among students, especially those who have a chance to talk with a published author. Many writers will answer that they do not actually go in search of ideas; rather, ideas come to them—right out of own lives. This is definitely true for E. B. White. Where did White get the idea to write Charlotte’s Web? What about Stuart Little? Be sure students listen carefully for answers to these questions.

The significance of place. We don’t necessarily think of White’s writing as being about “place” per se, but in each of White’s books, setting plays a vital role. Read the description of the barn that opens Chapter 3 of Charlotte’s Web. You’ll see (and feel) at once how critical this setting is to the story that follows. (Note that White almost began the book with this description.) Share this passage aloud with your students. Ask what details they notice and how those details make them feel. What senses does White appeal to in this passage?

In one of the book’s most profound quotations (53), E. B. White tells us he can’t find words to explain what comes over him when he crosses the state line into Maine (the place where, as a boy, he spent summers with his family)—it’s “the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” Have your students experienced a place that affected them so deeply? Have you? Talk about this. Such places can range from a homey kitchen to an open prairie, from an apartment balcony to a corner coffee shop, bookstore, beach, bridge, attic, treehouse, lake-side hideaway, or anywhere your feet or mind can take you. Discuss one or two places that have had an emotional impact on you. Then give students a chance to come up with one or two of their own, talking with partners to generate ideas. Ask them to pick one place that stands out, and write about it. Remind them that places without names—like the barn from Charlotte’s Web—often make the best choices.the-trumpet-of-the-swan

Crafting an Argument: Book Reviews. On pages 68 through 74, Sweet recounts the striking differences between critics’ responses to Stuart Little and students’ responses. Critics were not universally enthusiastic, and some even considered the book inappropriate for school libraries. Children loved it, however, and bombarded White with personal letters that he treasured.

stuart-little2Your students may not agree with the critics about their favorite books, either. Have them search out online reviews for any book they like, checking to see if critics and other readers agree with their point of view. If not, have students write a one-page review, defending their position and including one or two quotations from the book to support their thinking. Consider publishing some reviews online. As an alternative, have students write directly to the author. If you cannot find an online POB or email address, you can reach any author by sending a letter in care of the publisher.

Revising leads. Among the most fascinating parts of Some Writer! is the history of how White struggled to find the most effective opening for Charlotte’s Web. From pages 86 through 92, we learn that he wrote many leads over a period of several months. Share this section aloud with students so they can appreciate how different these leads are—and how hard White worked to get this part right. Notice that he doesn’t just revise the wording. The whole setting and perspective changes from one revision to the next. White began with a very direct lead about Charlotte, then moved to Wilbur, then to the barn itself, and on to Mr. Arable. The lead he settled on for the final draft ranks as one of the strongest in literature. It’s both engaging—and startling. Read it aloud to see if your students agree. Compare the leads (paying close attention to the captions at the bottom of each page), and talk about what changes from one to another, and which lead your students feel works best. What exactly gives a lead the power to capture us as readers?

After discussing White’s examples, have students look for favorite leads from books they love, and read them aloud for the class. Then ask them to review a lead from their own writing and revise it at least twice. Encourage them to make bold changes of the sort E. B. White made to his own writing. Instead of simply changing a word or two, ask them to make each revision distinctly different from all others. When they finish, have them share their three versions with a partner or in a small writing group, and discuss which ones work best—and why.

The nature of revision. In school, we often practice revision as a one-time event. Students write a piece, then at some point revise it—and it’s finished. But clearly for E. B. White, as for nearly all professional writers, revision requires ongoing and repeated efforts, often over a long stretch of time. What does this difference tell us about the true nature of revision? Should this have an impact on the way we teach writing? Discuss this with students.

Hands-on research.  In the first part of Chapter 9, we discover how E. B. White learned about spiders. He spent over a year watching them. At one point, he actually kept eggs in a box, waited for the young spiders to hatch, and tracked their first movements. How many writers would take time for all this? And yet, consider how important this hands-on research was to Charlotte’s Web. What if White had tried to write the book without knowing any more about spiders than most of us know?

In addition to the information from Chapter 9, share Sweet’s “Author’s Note” on pages 135-136 aloud with your students. Did Sweet do some hands-on research of her own for this book? Talk about how this form of research differs from looking topics up in books or on the Internet. What makes firsthand research so valuable?

Have your students done any firsthand research of their own? If not, this could be a good time to start! As a class, choose a topic: raising chickens, yoga, hiking, cooking the perfect omelet—anything. Discuss ways a writer can learn about a topic in a personal way—a site visit, interview, observation, etc. Ask students to include at least one form of personal hands-on research next time they are gathering information for a nonfiction piece.

 Writing down to children. On page 130, the author quotes E. B. White’s strong views about never writing down to children. Share this paragraph aloud. Then have students write a personal response. Ask volunteers to share their responses. How do your students feel about the point White makes here? What exactly does “writing down” mean, and can your students identify any authors who do this? Why is it important for an author to respect his or her audience—or to think about them at all?

the-story-of-charlottes-web-michael-simsA Final Note . . . For more information on E. B. White’s writing process, see The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. 2011. New York: Walker and Company.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author . . .

Writer and illustrator Melissa Sweet lives with her family on the coast of Maine, near E. B. White’s former home. She has illustrated more than eighty children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor books The Right Word and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, both written by Jen Bryant. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards. She also wrote and illustrated Tupelo Rides the Rails; Carmine: A Little More Red, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Balloons Over Broadway, a picture book biography that won the Sibert Medal and was named a 2011 Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Picture Book. When she is not in her studio, Melissa can be found taking an art class, hiking with her dogs, or riding her bicycle.

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway

A River of Words

A River of Words

Of her field research, Melissa said this in a 2014 interview: “When I set out, I travel with a small studio: camera, sketchbook, pens and pencils. But oftentimes I get somewhere and it’s more about taking time to soak up what I’m seeing without being too diligent about recording it. The impressions of a place or archival material can be as inspiring as the meticulous details.”

To read more of this fascinating interview, check out www.artofthepicturebook.com  You can also visit Melissa at www.melissasweet.net

Author Sneed Collard

Author Sneed Collard

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Great news! Our book is a reality! Teaching Nonfiction Revision is currently in production with Heinemann, and my wonderful co-author Sneed B. Collard and I are eagerly awaiting release—tentatively scheduled for early fall. This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional writer—Sneed. For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Fire Birds

Fire Birds

In our new book, Sneed details his tips and strategies for revising nonfiction both concisely and effectively. He’s a seasoned, imaginative writer who knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. He’s also enormously fun to work with. (I have a rule: Never work with someone who has no sense of humor. Sooner or later, you always regret it.)

 

My part as co-author has been to translate Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons that teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. If you teach nonfiction writing, Sneed and I are confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable (not to mention outrageously fun to read) addition to your professional collection. And by the way, my colleague and fellow guru Jeff Hicks has promised to review the book in a future post, and we cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you so much, Jeff! We’ll have more information on the release date as soon as we know it.

 

Just-for-Fun Book Recommendation: Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Books for Living

Books for Living

I have a simple way of determining how good a film is: Even before it’s over, I know I’ll watch it again. I judge books the same way. Admittedly, I don’t always read the whole book when I return, but I do return, and that’s the point. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe is one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. Because it’s supremely well written, because it’s a profound, heartfelt and often funny (at times deeply touching) look at the meaning of life, and because author Will Schwalbe responds to some of my own favorite books, including The Girl on the Train, David Copperfield, Wonder, Gift from the Sea, 1984, Song of Solomon, and—one that influenced me immeasurably—Bird by Bird.

Each chapter focuses on one book—26 in all—and how that book affected Schwalbe or shaped his view of bird-by-birdlife. In addition, each chapter has a theme, inspired by the chosen book. Schwalbe is quick to point out in his introduction that not all the books are his personal favorites, nor would they necessarily make the “greatest books of all time” list:

What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. (17)

He adds that any reader can make a list like this, and he recommends it because “it’s a path to creating your own personal philosophy” (18).

just-take-it-bird-by-birdI couldn’t help noticing what a radical and refreshing departure this is from the usual book reports we so often ask students to do. Why, I thought, couldn’t students take this same approach, writing about books that have moved them deeply and made a difference in how they see things—or books that have helped them navigate a troubled time? Read a selected chapter or two from Books for Living aloud, and I can almost guarantee that your students will want to do this very thing. Of course, this is a wide open prairie-without-fences approach to reading—and writing. Instead of defining those books that we think students should find meaningful, we let them decide that on their own. Maybe that’s wiser than we think, though. As Schwalbe reminds us, the idea that there is a “Ginsu knife” book—the book that can be all things to everyone—is a myth. What is true, however, is that there’s always a Ginsu knife book for each of us for a particular time and situation.

By the way, one of the books Schwalbe discusses is Stuart Little. I highly recommend reading this chapter aloud in conjunction with discussing Melissa Sweet’s book Some Writer! It not only captures the complexity of Stuart’s character, but more important, shows why E. B. White’s work is not only timeless, but also reaches an impressively wide range of readers, from five to ninety five. You’ll love Schwalbe’s book, and I’m betting you’ll want to create, along with your students, a similar book of your own.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

woodward-vickijeff3249a

a-black-hole-is-not-a-hole

A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. 2012. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

Levels: Aimed at grade 4 and up, but appropriate and engaging for any grade level, including adults.

Features: Striking and informative illustrations, strong nonfiction voice, exceptionally thorough glossary, expansive timeline from pre-17th Century to the present—and beyond, excellent resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” That playful description gives you a hint about Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s irresistibly charming nonfiction voice. But it doesn’t begin to reveal how much information the author packs into her 61-page account of this outer space phenomenon.

In a book written both to inform and amuse, the author manages to be scientific without being overly technical. Her conversational style—reminiscent of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science guy, and other fine nonfiction authors—makes readers eager to pull up a chair and learn everything possible about black holes.

We discover at the outset that black holes are not what we might think. For one thing, they’re not holes. They’re also not monsters, gobbling up everything in the universe. But yes, they can and do pull things in—things as small as dust or as large as stars—and what goes in never comes out. Not even light can escape. That’s because “a black hole’s pull us the strongest pull in the entire universe,” stronger than any “fleet of giant rocket engines” (5). And though black holes may not plot or strategize, DeCristofano imbues them with an unmistakable element of danger that only adds to their allure.

The book is beautifully organized, divided into eight short chapters, each with its own theme. We begin with a description of black holes, what they are and how they operate, then consider the enormity of their gravitational pull, the way in which a black hole is formed, and the unimaginable blackness itself. The author wraps things up by first treating us to an imaginary tour inside a black hole, suggesting how things might look and feel if somehow we could make the journey—which of course we cannot. It’s too far (an understatement) and the effects would be, let’s say, dire: “The pull from the black hole would force your body into a long, skinny, stringy shape” (51). Just what I wanted for the New Year!, you’re thinking—but actually, this undesirable effect, known as “spaghettification,” doesn’t end well at all. When it comes to travel destinations, black holes do not make the list. In the final chapter, we get a peek at the “strange new universe” conceived by Einstein and others, a place where space can stretch and bend (55), and Newton’s law of gravity is given a new twist.

Every great nonfiction book offers readers something to love, and this one is no exception. First, DeCristofano’s voice never settles into the mundane. Throughout the book, she retains a tone of vibrant curiosity as if she were making discoveries right along with us. Second, thanks to the author’s exhaustive research, this book is filled with intriguing, little known bits of information. For example, what’s the likelihood that we ourselves will be swallowed by a black hole? Don’t let it keep you awake. Turns out we’re quadrillions of miles from the closest one. (To find out how many zeroes are in a quadrillion, check out the brilliant chart on page 6.) In addition, the author is a veritable master of similes and metaphors—which I happen to love because they make complex ideas accessible. In one chapter, she compares black holes to whirlpools. Though they may not be exactly alike, we get the idea. It gives us an image to cling to, and that’s important when discussing something as elusive as a black hole that exists in black space.

Finally, this book is brilliantly illustrated—in a range of styles that blend beautifully and fully complement the text. Illustrations include Michael Carroll’s striking paintings and whimsical cartoons, along with stunning photos from NASA and other sources. Together, these illustrations make us feel as if we are on a space flight, searching for mysterious black holes ourselves.

By the way, will our own sun become a black hole one day? Apparently  . . . that’s impossible. Read the book to find out why.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole is an ideal discussion book for a small group, but you can also read it aloud if you divide it into chapters. Please do read at least selected passages aloud since this book offers such an outstanding illustration of nonfiction voice. In addition, use a document projector if you can; students will find the illustrations fascinating and informative.

 

Background. What do your students know about black holes now? You might have them write a definition of a black hole. This isn’t a quiz! It’s a chance for them to see what they know prior to reading or hearing the book compared to what they learn as they go through it. You might also make a class list of the main questions your students have about black holes. Then compare your class list with the seven questions on the front inside flap of the book jacket. How many questions match? And how many of their questions are answered by reading the book? Note: When you finish the book, have students write a second definition of a black hole, comparing it to what they wrote at first. What ideas or perceptions have changed?

Coming to “terms” with the content. Fully understanding the book requires knowledge of a little scientific terminology. The author is very good at explaining new terms and ideas in context, but you can help students get even more out of the book by introducing a few terms from the glossary either up front or as you encounter them. Doing so also gives you a chance to acquaint students with the benefits of referring to a glossary often as you read. Recommended terms to emphasize: black hole, energy, event horizon, force, galaxy, gravity, light year, matter, quasar, radio galaxy, singularity, star, supernova, white dwarf.

Format and genre. Many students—and adults—equate picture books with stories. Maybe your students do, too. Ask them. Then mention that an increasing number of picture books—particularly those aimed at older students—are nonfiction. This trend has literally exploded over recent decades. (Why do you and your students think that might be?) You might also ask how they define “nonfiction” in their own minds. In fact, nonfiction is a large genre that can include everything from biographies and memoirs to histories, news reports, documentary videos, scientific analyses, nonfiction picture books, and much more. In terms of genre, how would your students describe A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole? After discussing this with them, you might share your own thoughts—along with mine: It’s fact, not fiction. We can also describe it as informational writing, based on scientific research. Read Carolyn Cinami CeDrostofano’s “Author’s Note” (pages 70-71) for details on how she compiled her information.

The message. Nonfiction books should teach readers something important or interesting. Even casual readers will pick up numerous bits of information about black holes, stars, galaxies, and the known and unknown universe. But—is there a larger message here? What central idea (or ideas) does the author hope we take away from reading this book? Hint: To zero in on this, try comparing common myths about black holes to the impressions with which the author leaves us by the end of the book.

The details. One helpful way to think about details is to ask students what information, if any, was new—or surprising. Nonfiction authors—the good ones, anyway—are always full of surprises. We wouldn’t read their books otherwise. You can model this with just the introduction and first chapter. Make a list of things that surprised you. For me, that would include the following (and if you teach science, then probably these weren’t surprises—but you can call them interesting reminders):

  • A black hole is not really a hole
  • It’s trillions of miles from Earth to the closest star
  • Stars look close together in the night sky—but are trillions of miles apart
  • A black hole has the strongest pull in the universe
  • A black hole can pull in stars and asteroids—in fact, nothing whatsoever can resist it

Looking at details in this way—as tidbits of surprising or hard-to-forget information—helps students understand what to include in their own writing. The details that matter, the ones to sift from their own research, are those that will make a reader say, “No kidding? I never knew that!”

Voice. No one without a strong sense of her own voice would dare call Einstein “a radical smarty-pants” (55). DeCristofano pulls it off with nary a blink. She is having a good time thinking and writing about space, and that kind of joy is infectious. If you share the book, or parts of it aloud, you can ask students to point out moments where they hear the author’s voice most clearly. Have them identify strong passages, study them together—using a document projector if you have one—and try to figure out what creates the voice. Is it wording? Humor? Striking details? Something more?

In addition, talk about the role of voice in nonfiction. I happen to think it’s essential in most writing (contracts, medical reports, and the like being exceptions of course). If a writer is excited about a topic, there’s no reason that enthusiasm shouldn’t come through in her writing. In writing that serves an informational purpose, though, what is the role of voice? Talk about this, perhaps by comparing DeCristofano’s book to any nonfiction piece without voice. Encyclopedias and many textbooks provide good examples.

Illustrations. Ask students to notice the different types of illustrations that appear throughout the text. Discuss the various purposes illustrations serve: to amuse us, teach us something, add to the mood or appeal of the book. Was the choice to use a blend of illustrations a good one in this case—for this subject and this author’s approach to her subject? Why? What if the book contained only photographs or only cartoons? What would be lost? Or suppose it had no illustrations at all. What would happen then?

 Drafting an argument. Do your students have any guess about how much money the U.S. spends on space research and exploration? Has the amount gone up or down in recent years? You can check out the facts online at this or another website:

http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

Discuss this issue with students. Are we spending about the right amount—especially now that China and India are more active in space exploration, along with the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency? Should we be more competitive and aggressive in our spending? Or perhaps pull back and commit this money to some other endeavor? Give students a chance to research this topic briefly and discuss it in small groups. Then ask them to craft an argument supporting one of the following:

  • Increase spending on space exploration
  • Decrease spending
  • Maintain current levels of spending

Remind them to include strong reasons to back their position and to cite specific data and sources for that data. By the way, if your students are fortunate enough to know someone with relevant information or experience relevant to this topic, invite that person in for a class interview. The results will enrich your students’ writing immeasurably.

 Further research. Want to see a terrific video about black holes? Look up “nonfiction videos on black holes” online for a wide selection. Many are under two minutes long, allowing you to watch several within the span of a lesson. They may answer additional questions raised by the book. And seeing a black hole in motion—even an animated rendition—is an educational experience!

 

About the Author . . .

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is a science education consultant and award winning author. She has been named a Creative Teaching Partner (specialty: Curriculum and Planning) by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and has developed science programs with NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Early on, Carolyn enjoyed writing and imagined herself as a writer. As her interest in science grew, she found creative ways to combine the two.

“For the past fifteen or so years,” she says, “I have been fortunate to work with teachers, museum educators, and educational researchers on fascinating projects. But I have never really stopped writing. I write poetry—but don’t share it often. I try to write stories, too. And I thoroughly enjoy shaping engaging science books that I hope will capture the reader’s imagination on lots of different levels.”

Carolyn works with educators to help integrate writing—notably science writing—into the broader school curriculum. Visit Carolyn at her website: www.carolyndecristofano.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Welcome back! We hope you had a glorious winter break, and perhaps enjoyed a little snow—maybe not as much as we’ve had in Oregon. As I write this, we are working on our sixth foot of powder, definitely more than needed for cross country skiing, especially if you are the one breaking trail.

img_2839

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders and is also teaching curling now. If I were in Beaverton, I’d say, “Sign me up!” Meanwhile, when I’m not shoveling (which is hardly ever anymore) I continue to work on my new nonfiction book. And no, it’s not a myth. It’s real—and we will announce it soon.img_2895

What do you do when it snows? Besides wishing for a snow blower? Right! You read! I craved a little break from my steady diet of nonfiction and discovered I love the deliciously dark and gritty mysteries by Tana French. I highly recommend her newest, The Trespasser. Fans of the AMC series “The Killing” will quickly recognize how much the prickly tension between two crackerjack detectives—one male and one female—can add to any story. They’re partners, make no mistake, but they keep each other on point at all times.

the-trespasserI like the format of French’s books. She doesn’t bury readers in a barrage of gory details, or set up clichéd plots in which a sadist stalks a helpless victim who’s cringing in a corner. Her characters are realistic, and so are their motives. But this isn’t “Columbo,” and there’s a lot we don’t know when we first witness the crime scene—including who the killer might be. Gradually, French serves up healthy doses of clues, and lets you work on “the solve,” which is never as easy as it first appears.

Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran persist in digging for the truth, even when taunted by the rest of the Murder squad to get on with it and move to the next case. We get to dig with them, seeing every piece of evidence and every potential witness as a detective would. The level of detail in French’s writing is absolutely astonishing—and thoroughly fascinating. Add to that, French’s knowledge of police procedures is impressive and the interrogation room interviews are as compelling as any I’ve read by any author—ever.

Her characters are real—and gritty. Detective Moran, like the Stephen Holder character in “The Killing,” is consistently smarter than he lets on, and is the perfect foil for Detective Conway, whose in your face style and colorful vocabulary would stop most sailors in their tracks. She takes no prisoners, and luckily is immune to insults since she receives plenty. Feisty, brilliant, intuitive, and unapologetic, Conway is a match for pretty much anything that stumbles into her path, from overbearing superiors to ingenious killers. I loved her—and am hoping she appears in many future books by Tana French. So much for mysteries . . .

Are you a fan of nonfiction? Then, rejoice. We’ll be doing more nonfiction reviews in future posts. Meanwhile . . . Give every child a voice.

vicki_jeff_small

 

drowned-city

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.

 

Overview

“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.

drowned-city-2

 

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.

 great-american-dust-bowl 

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

america-under-attack

 

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.

woodward-vickijeff3249a

thumbnail_steve-peha-be-a-better-writer-front-cover

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

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

 

Everything That Matters

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

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

thumbnail_steve-peha-sharing-in-angie-clarkes-class

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

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

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

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

Organization Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Margot’s Role

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

Hidden Gems

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

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

thumbnail_steve-peha-sharing-with-angie-clarke-be-a-better-writer-classroom

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

 To get the book on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

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

To see Steve’s newsletter:

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

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

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

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

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

vicki_jeff_small

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

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

images-1

I know that the end of another school year is just around the corner—I’m sure that none of you are counting the days. You’re all too busy teaching your fingers to the bone, keeping students engaged, focused, and learning, squeezing the most out of the last weeks (or days) of school. Soon, very soon, your mind will be able to shake itself loose from teacher mode. Thoughts of summer, carefree relaxation with an icy beverage or two will take over and you’ll begin the important process of recharging your professional batteries, gulping it in like an all-electric vehicle at a charging station. But we all know that it’s possible, after the initial phase of summer’s mind-scrubbing decompression, because of who you are—a reflective professional—that you might permit a few thoughts of August and September to creep in and get you thinking about next year. To make sure you are ready for that moment, I’m going to recommend an excellent writing contest for your next batch of students and a few book ideas (to read aloud or recommend to students) for your post-murder mystery/romance/spy thriller summer reading. After all, you’re a teacher! You know you can’t block it out for very long. Admit it–it’s who you are. It’s how you roll.

images

Writing Contest—Letters About Literature: Read. Be inspired. Write Back

Once I discovered this contest years ago, I never missed getting my students involved. It’s sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. You can find all you need to know about how to enter and important deadlines at: www.read.gov/letters/ Here’s a sample from the website to give you the basics—“Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem, or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.”

The letters students write for this contest are not the typical fan letters students often write to favorite authors where they ask the writer questions—Where did you get the idea for this book? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you think there will ever be a movie bout your book? The purpose of these letters is to talk directly to authors—reader to writer—to let them know how a book impacted the reader’s life—how the book got inside the reader’s head and heart, how it may have changed some aspect of their life. Here are example letters from two of my former students, both eighth graders. (The judging categories are Level I—grades 4-6, Level II—grades 7-8, Level III—grades 9-12.) The first letter is from a student that you might call an avid reader/writer and the second is from a more reluctant reader/writer.

imgres-6

Letter #1 (Winner—Honorable Mention, state level—Oregon)
To author Han Nolan
Book: If I Should Die Before I Wake
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Han Nolan,
Your book “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” made me look at the people around me in a different way. Chana’s strength and perception made me start focusing more on peoples’ actions, ideas, and views rather than what they own, who they know, or what their dreams are.
When Chana and her family are in the concentration camp, their thoughts and actions are magnified, because that’s all they have left. The Jews are put in a place where they are forced to work without food, to obey commands and given no clothing, to sweat, starve and die under the cold, watchful eyes of the Germans. Chana had to have strength of character and the courage of her convictions to survive. The harsh conditions of the damp brought out the best and worst in people — character traits that never would have shown up otherwise. The part of the book that really got inside my head was when Chana found herself in a position to kill one of the German guards who had caused her and everyone else in the camp so much pain.
               “I was not a girl with dreams of someday becoming a great violinist, or of getting married and having children. I was not a girl with a family, or a house, or fancy clothes. I was not someone who belonged to a shul, or was known for her brown wavy hair with a strand that always jutted out in the back. I could no longer identify myself by what I owned, or who I knew, or what my dreams were. This—my body, my mind, my soul—was all I was. It is all any of us ever are, and without the camouflage of my dreams and possessions, I realized that everything I did, every thought i had, was all I was. It was all very simple. If I killed the guard, all of who I was would be a murderer, not a murderer and a violinist who lived in a house and had a nice family—just a murderer. If I showed love, all of me would be a lover. Who then did I want to be?”
                 Separated from their families, stripped of their clothes, and living in tiny, freezing barracks with greasy kitchens, the hearts of the Jews are revealed.
Their thoughts and actions become all they are. It is all we ever are, but we never learn to see that because we live in disguise, masked by our possessions, our dreams, our position in society.
This got me thinking…without my possessions and dreams, who would I be? I would not be a girl who had a nice family and went to school. I would not be a girl who loved books and art, would not be a girl who had a dog called Tillie and lived on a house on a hill that was best for sledding.
After I thought about this, I began to put more emphasis on my actions, thoughts, and views on things. I started question in the people around me. What if we all wore school uniforms? What if we lived in a world where every thing was invisible, and all that showed were your words? Would people choose the same friends?
People have always told me “It’s what on the inside that counts” but the real meaning of that statement never got inside my head until now. When Chana was in the concentration camp, the importance of her thoughts and actions was magnified. I realized that without having to get to that point, I can still look at people through their actions and words, and cherish my own.
Thank you.

Sincerely,
J.N.

imgres-7

Letter #2 (Winner—Second Runner Up, state level—Oregon)

To author Carl Deuker
Book: Painting the Black
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Mr. Deuker,
I feel that you have written the book, Painting the Black just for me. I believe this because at so many different periods in the book, I was able to relate back to a time where I have felt the same excitement, or the same doubt. This year I have read more books total then I have in my whole life. My total this year is six and counting, from kindergarten until now I had read probably four books. Thanks to authors like you I have finally been able to feel the excitement of a good book.
I am a big sports guy, always playing a sport, and if I’m not playing, then I’m watching. The last two years have been a big switch for me; I went from soccer to football. Last year was my first year I played football, starting at tight end. I felt that I was fairly decent; I enjoyed playing this position as well. Going out for a deep pass or crushing my enemy with a huge clock—I loved it. But deep down inside, I was a quarterback. I could bomb the ball in the tightest spiral and make it look like it was not even spinning. I was a QB. There was only one thing that was keeping me from achieving my goal, and that was my best friend Greg. He was like Josh in the story—he was perfect. If he was going to throw deep, it was going deep and right on the mark every time. If I wanted to be QB next year, I was going to have to work, and work hard; work as hard as Ryan did in the story. He wanted to be the starting catcher on the team and he achieved his dream. So why couldn’t I? I worked all summer long throwing the football constantly. I threw through a tire that hung from a play set in back yard. I wanted to be a QB, so that’s what I was going to be. I told myself that every night.
Now it was finally time, football season; it was finally here, and I was ready. At practice, I worked at QB hard, and let me tell you I was doing a good job. I was living the life I always wanted and it was only my second year. After that practice, I proved to my self and to my coach that I should be the starting quarterback for the Beaverton Metro Junior Beavers.
During the year I had feelings, just as Josh did the first game he got to play. I felt on fire, with everything going my way, a masterpiece at work, dodging tackles, and diving for first downs. It was great. I worked just as hard as Ryan did, and I was successful, too. There was a time when one of my fellow teammates did something against team rules. I did not choose to tell, and I did this for the same reason as Ryan. He was hesitant to tell on Josh in the story. We needed this player, and we may have lost without him. The same for Ryan and Josh; Josh had a shocking incident with Monica in the story. Ryan did not want to tell at first for the same reason as I, but Ryan ended up doing the right thing. I didn’t. It turned out to be not that big of a deal, but to this day, I still think about it.
               Painting the Black is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Let me tell you Mr. Deuker, I will never find a book that matched my life in the same way.

Sincerely,
N.B.

*Important Note*

I do hope you take a moment to visit www.read.gov/letters/ and look at both the contest details and examples of national level winning letters. You will find information about entering (and how the letters will be assessed) and a helpful teaching guide to supplement your own ideas. November is the month when you may begin submitting entries, and each level has it’s own submission deadline.

Since the new school year is several months away (and many miles beyond your current radar), I will post a reminder here on STG and on Twitter (@JeffHicks156) sometime in September/early October.

Some School Related Book Recommendations

The books that follow are three of my favorite recent reads. And I believe they’re the kind of books that, in the hands of student readers, could launch a whole bunch of the type of letters the LAL contest (above) is all about. I could say a lot about each of them, but I won’t. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information or classroom ideas you may be too busy to absorb at this point in the year. I just want to let you know about a few worthwhile books to check out for yourself. But don’t be surprised if I come back to one or more of them in the fall when your teacher engine is fully charged.

imgres-1

Book: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Grades 5 and up

352 pages

http://alibenjamin.com/site/

Passage—pages 109-110

            The next thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this: They are taking over.

            Did you know that? Not many people do. It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention. People pay attention to other things. They pay attention to videos of cats playing pianos, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend. They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

            But meanwhile. Out there in the sea. Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

            Isn’t that a pretty phrase? Jellyfish blooms, like garden flowers opening up to the sun.

            There are more jellyfish than ever. At least, that’s what some scientists say.

 

imgres-4

Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Grades 8 and up (If it were a movie—PG-13 rating)

320 pages

http://www.brendankiely.com/all-american-boys/

http://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Jason-Reynolds/403685768

Passage—pages 144-145

             I knew exactly what I was drawing. The only thing I could. I was going to re-create the scene, what had happened to me, what was playing constantly on the news, on the page.

            First the outline. A teenage boy. Hands up. No. Erase. Hands down. No. Hands behind his back. Outline of a figure behind him. Bigger than he is. Holding him around the neck. No. Not that. Fist in the air. No. Not that either. Hands pushing through the teenage boy’s chest. A building behind him. A store. Person in the doorway. Cheering.

imgres-2

Book: The War that Save my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Grades 4-7

320 pages

http://www.kimberlybrubakerbradley.com/

Passage—pages 183

            I knew I couldn’t really stay. The good things here—not being shut up in the one room, for starters, and then Butter, and my crutches, and being warm even when it was cold outside. Clean clothes. Nightly baths. Three meals a day. That cup of Bovril before bedtime. The ocean seen from the top of the hill—all of these things, they were just temporary. Just until Mam came for us. I didn’t dare get too used to them.

            I tried to think of the good things about home. I remembered Mam bringing home fish-‘n’-chips on Friday nights, crisp and hot and wrapped in newspaper. I remembered that sometimes Mam sang, and laughed, and once even danced Jamie around the table. I remembered how when Jamie was little he spent his days inside with me. I remembered the crack on the ceiling that looked like a man in a pointed hat.

            And even if it felt like Mam hated me, she had to love me, didn’t she? She had to love me, because she was my mam, and Susan was just somebody who got stuck taking care of Jamie and me because of the war.

 

IMG_2897

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

We know your school year is in full gear even as it winds down. It won’t be long before we take a short summer break, as well. Before we do, Vicki is going to tell you about Steve Peha’s new book, Be a Better Writer. It’s filled with all sorts of ideas for your classroom—a few to try now and many more for the fall.

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

 

imgres-4

I have a friend, a retired university English professor, who is my reading role model because of both his reading habits and the books he chooses to read. Every winter, he selects a Dickens novel to read—it’s the perfect season for reading Dickens (and he has read all of them), and while he was teaching, he would “treat” himself at the conclusion of spring term to one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. His recommendations have steered me to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Wilke Collin’s The Moonstone, and Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, to name just a few. My good friend has even inspired me to do something I usually don’t like to do—“binge” read more than one book consecutively by the same author. I haven’t done it quite to his level—e.g. he read the entire John Le Carre novel catalog in order (I think that’s around 23 books). I’m not even sure why I don’t like to do it, but recently broke from my pattern and read four books in a row by YA author Andrew Smith, one after the other before coming up for air: Winger, Stand Off (the sequel to Winger), Grasshopper Jungle, and Stick. And I have three more waiting on the shelf—100 Miles Sideways, the Alex Crow, and Ghost Medicine (Smith’s first novel).

There’s something (actually there’s a lot of somethings) about Andrew Smith’s writing, storytelling, characters, and honesty that just speaks to me, and I figure that if that’s true, then his books will also resonate with a grade 9-12 student audience. I do want to provide a bit of a warning to readers who may be sensitive/nervous about reading or recommending YA novels containing salty language, sexual references, and sexual situations. These books are all coming of age stories focusing on male lead characters, and yes, they contain some strong language and sexual situations. None of this seems gratuitous or included for shock value because Mr. Smith’s characters speak authentic “boy.” The hook for me, as I think it will be for student readers, is that each of Mr. Smith’s books features fully realized characters drawn from real life, facing real problems, and dealing with them using their real teenage brains. Real teen characters are going to use foul language, and they are going to have family issues, friendships, romantic relationships, they’re going to question authority, and make some bad decisions. And because they are teenagers, they’re going to think about sex, talk about sex, and act upon sexual impulses. But they’re also going to surprise the adults in their lives by thinking and doing amazing things for themselves, the people they care about, and even for their world. (Both my teaching and parenting experiences will vouch for that.)

In case I haven’t scared you off, what follows is a brief summary of three of the four Andrew Smith books I read ( I don’t want to overwhelm you or somehow limit the joy you might feel at discovering the rest on your own), some short passages from each to give you a flavor of his writing, and an idea or two about how all or part of the books might be used by grade 9-12 teachers. (Stand-Off is a fully realized, very satisfying sequel to Winger, a continuation of the main character’s coming of age. I thought I would start you off with the first book, and let you go from there.)

imgres     imgres-1

Winger. 2013. Andrew Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

439 pages (Hardback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age novel

Summary: Ryan Dean West is fourteen, excels at school, is kind of scrawny, and the youngest 11th grader at Pine Mountain, a fancy private boarding school in the mountains of Oregon. At Pine Mountain they play rugby, a sport for both behemoths and undersized fast kids like Ryan Dean. He plays winger, hence his less than creative nickname, “Winger.” To begin his junior year, Ryan Dean is placed in Opportunity Hall, a special dormitory for students who have broken one of the many strict rules at Pine Mountain. Ryan Dean was caught stealing/borrowing a teacher’s cell phone and hacking into the account so he could make “undetected, untraceable” calls. (Cell phones are off limits to students.) He’s not a bad kid though he does make several questionable decisions, fueled by self-doubt. He’s often aware they’re bad decisions, yet makes them anyway—“I’m such a loser!” is his frequent, sad mantra.

The story, told by Ryan Dean, is enhanced by the inclusion of his cartoons, where he lampoons teachers, friends, enemies, and himself, along with humorous charts/graphs of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Ryan Dean believes in telling the truth, and let’s readers know that though he swears frequently in his narration, he almost never does it in front of people. He’s got an awful roommate, a rogue’s gallery of teammates, and to top it off, he’s in love with Annie, his best friend, and yearns for her to see him as more than a little kid. To tell much more would be verging on spoiling some wonderful character and story developments. As always, I suggest you read the book yourself before recommending it or using it with students.

Three Short Passages from Winger—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I’ll be honest. If someone asked me am I in love with Annie Altman, I’d have to say I don’t know, because I really don’t know. I have nothing to compare with how I feel about her. But I do know that I feel this kind of a need where she is concerned; I need her to notice me more than she does; I need to think that I make her feel lighter when she sees me. And there’s no way I could ever believe that was possible, because it was just little me, Ryan Dean West, fourteen years old, walking around in the exact same clothes and tie as four hundred other guys at Pine Mountain, every one of us so much the same, except for me, except for that one thing she noticed that she couldn’t get over, that made me so unattractively different from every other eleventh-grade boy in this shithole. (Page 108)
  2. Running through the woods north of their house, it amazed me how green things grew on top of green things that were still green and growing. Trees were covered with ferns and vines and mosses, and everywhere it looked as if nothing had been dry in centuries. And in the dark woods as we ran, I could smell that living-ocean scent of the island, and I heard nothing but the sounds of our feet on the wet ground, our breathing, and the static-spark sizzle of rain dripping through the forest cover. (Page 261)
  3. Okay.

                 Let’s call this an intermission.

                 With a bit of an apology, I guess.

                  You ever hear of Joseph Conrad? He said, “One writes half the book: the other half is up to the reader.”

                 Mr. Wellins might say that I have made you a conscripted audience. That I didn’t give you a choice as to whether or not to believe me, and, believe me, sometimes I can’t believe myself.

            Or something. (Page 410)

In Your Classroom

This (and the sequel, Stand-Off, as well) may not be a book you want to use with your entire class, but it may be just the thing to recommend to a student or select group of students for independent or special project reading. This is where your relationships with your students—knowledge of their interests, reading habits/patterns, etc.—really come into play. I always kept a stand of books on my desk for students to borrow and for me to recommend. It never seemed to matter what books I had, if they were on my desk, students would ask to see them, like I had a lock on all the “cool” books. I hate to label books as “boy” or “girl” books, but as I said, Andrew Smith speaks fluent boy, especially to boys who have spent some time on the edges of school/social circles. Here are a couple ways to use selected parts of the book.

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any that speak to you from your reading of the book) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used as a model for students to reflect about something/someone they care about, or as a model for self-description. The passage blends long sentences with shorter ones and even violates some “rules”—beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc.)—as a stylistic choice to create interesting sentence fluency.
  2. Using Cartoons/Graphs/Charts to Explain a Key Life Moment—Ryan Dean punctuates moments in his story with the inclusion of a cartoon drawing—like the one of the door to his dorm room on page 13—or a graph/chart to visualize or quantify something he is feeling—page 55’s pie chart of “Ryan Dean West Brain Capacity Allocation,” page 117’s bar graph of “Things Ryan Dean West is Afraid Of.”
  3. The Game of Rugby—Ryan Dean plays rugby and loves it—the physicality, the camaraderie, the traditions, and the fact that it’s a sport where skinny, fast, tenacious guys like him play an important role. (One of my roommates in college played rugby, so I have watched countless games and understand at least the basics of the game. I even traveled in a van with his rugby team from Eugene, Oregon to Carmel, California for a huge rugby tournament. It’s a game that attracts really “interesting” characters of all shapes and sizes.) I would use some of the rugby talk (there are passages about rugby practice, games, and rituals) in this book as a springboard to researching and explaining the culture and rules of rugby (or any sport that interests your students). 

imgres-2

Stick. 2011. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

292 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age (Sexual identity, physical/verbal abuse)

 Summary:

This story is told through the eyes and ear (just one) of thirteen-year-old Stark McClellan. He’s called Stick because that’s the way he’s built—tall for his age and rail thin. He was born with only one ear and has been told by his abusive parents, in many ways, that he is ugly and deformed. Stick and his sixteen-year-old brother Bosten are survivors. Their close relationship keeps them going as each suffers beatings, confinement, and verbal abuse. When their parents find out that Bosten is gay, he leaves home after suffering a terrible beat down at the hands of his father. Stick summons the courage to go after him, to keep their all important connection alive, and finds his way to his Aunt Dahlia’s in California, a safe haven where he figures Bosten will end up.

Three Short Passages from Stick—Just for the Flavor:

  1. When you see me at first, I look like just about another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you’re probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even—green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy’s ear, but it’s pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter’s clay. No hole—a canal, they call it.

            Nothing gets into my head that way.

            I can’t easily hide it because my dad won’t let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there’s nothing                        wrong with            me.

                                                                                                                        But I’m ugly.

            You see what I’m doing, don’t you? I                        am                         making

                                                                                                                        you hear me.

            The way                         I                         hear the                                     world.

            But I won’t do it too much, I                                                promise. (Page 6)

 

  1. “Let me see. Okay?”

            I pulled the sheet down, away from Bosten’s shoulders, so I could see his back.

            We’d both been beaten plenty of times before. This was one of the bad ones. It happened every so often.

            “It’s pretty bad,” I said.

            From the middle of his shoulder blades, past his butt and onto his thighs, Bosten was streaked with purple welts. Some of the marks that were raised had actually bled; all of them, angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.

            I whispered, lower, “Turn flat. I’m going to put something on it to make you feel better.”

            Bosten rolled flat onto his belly. He rested his chin on his forearm and stared at the wall at the head of the bed.

            “I hate them.” (Page 62)

 

  1. Sometimes I wondered why she treated us that way, why she accepted us the way she did. It wasn’t a sterile kind of tolerance, like kids could expect from PE coaches and nurses who gave you tetanus shots; it was something else.

            One time she told me about how her husband died when she was only twenty-five years old. I said he must have been a real nice man, but I couldn’t look at her when I said that. It made me sadder that just about anything. It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.

            She was a wondrous person, I thought. (Page 132)

In Your Classroom

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any other that catch your eye and ear as you read) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used with students as a model for self-description—“When you see me at first…” The writing could be done as poetry, where student writers consider how they see themselves compared to how others see them. The passage explains how Stick, because of his missing ear, hears/processes when people speak to him. He wants us to experience the slower, delayed pace of incoming speech. Your student writers could experiment in their own poetry with spacing gaps, line breaks, and formatting as a way to control the way their readers encounter their messages.
  2. Figurative Language—Similes—In passage #2, Bosten has been severely beaten by his father, again. Andrew Smith, through Stick, describes this moment between brothers quietly, almost casually. It may be shocking to us, but to them, it’s routine. As a reader, this makes the moment seem even more horrifying. He punctuates it with a pair of vivid, related similes, coming one after the other, “…angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.” Students could experiment with this idea of simile stacking.
  3. Discussion/Opinion Writing— I think that the second to last line in passage #3 would open the door to an interesting class discussion followed up with a reflective piece of writing: “It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.” It’s a variation on the classic Nature v. Nurture conundrum. What forces, experiences, circumstances, choices, lead people to behave the way they do? Is it possible for people to be all good or all bad? Is it possible for people to change?

 images

Grasshopper Jungle. 2014. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

388 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age/sexual identity/science fiction/giant grasshopper apocalypse novel (This is a difficult one to pin down.)

Awards: 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal Longlist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award

Summary:

I’m not sure if I can actually summarize this book. It may be the coolest, strangest, funniest, creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not quite sure how to explain the wild storyline. Remember all of the things I said earlier about salty language and sexual references/situations? They really apply to this book. Even though the story takes some bizarre turns, the main characters seemed real—real teenagers immersed in a surreal world. Austin Szerba, his best friend Robby, and his girlfriend Shann unwittingly loose upon the world a horde of savage, giant praying mantises interested only in eating and multiplying. This insect apocalypse begins in a small town in Iowa but has links to Austin’s Polish ancestors and a series of strange scientific discoveries, past and present. And, of course, it’s up to these three to save both their world and the world.

Based on what I’ve just said (or any of the book jacket blurbs), you may decide not to read it or even look at it. But I can think of several reluctant reader-teenage boy-students—past and present—who would eat this book up and ask for more. One student in particular comes to mind. He is a fanatic follower of The Walking Dead graphic novel series and television show, and has struggled with all sorts of issues. This student would find a connection, both as a reader and as a young man, with Austin, Robby, and Shann. You might not want to use this with an entire class, but having books like this one in your pocket, so to speak (or on your desk), empowers you to perhaps keep a few students reading.

Two Short Passages from Grasshopper Jungle—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

            We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

            But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

            This is my history.

            There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

            Just like it’s always been. (Page nine—opening lines of the book)

 

  1. The Unstoppable Soldier looked confused, if such an expression could manifest itself on the face of a six-foot-tall beast that looked like a praying mantic. Hungry Jack’s left arm fell off first. The right arm disjointed and plunked down onto the ground seconds later. The tooth-spiked claw arms rattled around on the pavement of the parking lot, spastically opening and closing, opening and closing, as they scraped along the ground with no coherent mission.

            Where the claw arms had detached from Hungry Jack’s thorax, a gooey stream of slick yellow fluid burbled like twin pots of boiling unstoppable cornmeal mush. Then Hungry Jack’s chin lowered and his head rolled away from his body, landing on the ground between the two flailing arms.

            What was left of Hungry Jack scampered away on four gangly legs, which soon became three, then two, and the entire Unstoppable Soldier collapsed in puddles of oily mush.

            Robby Brees saved my life.

            Being a historian naturally has its dangers, but this is my job. I tell the truth. (Pages 354-355)

 

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Because this is the book’s opening, passage #1 could be used as a model for students to begin a written reflection/story from their history—a brief scene from their lives so far or moment where they acted stupidly and didn’t actually learn from it. You could even use the last line of Passage #2 to open their reflection, emphasizing that what follows will be “the truth.” The second passage is a clear example of the power that strong verbs have to give movement/motion to scenes describing action.

More About Andrew SmithVisit www.authorandrewsmith.com for all sorts of information about Mr. Smith and his books.

Reading Recommendations

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

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters by Sean B. Carroll

imgres-5imgres-7imgres-6 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 Letters About Literature contest for grade 4-12 students, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, has come and gone. I was only recently reminded of this wonderful writing contest that I used to invite my students to enter. Shortly after the winners (state and national levels) are announced in April, I want to put in a plug for both the contest and the type of writing it inspires. And, of course, Vicki and I have been reading all sorts of wonderful books we’ll want to share with you to inspire you and your student writers.

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

 

IMG_2682

My first suggestion for you is to make sure you’ve read Vicki Spandel’s post from late January, “Rubrics Revisited.” I’ve lifted the title of my post directly from Vicki’s piece, because it resonated so strongly to me. So feel free to take a few moments to check it out!

Vicki’s latest post, “Rubrics Revisited,” has been rolling around inside my head since I first read it, so much so that I’d like to briefly revisit her revisiting. I’ve been doing some substitute teaching this school year, mostly with fifth grade students at the elementary school four blocks from my house but including a few days here and there at middle and high school. Recently, I’ve also been helping the high school son of a good friend–I’ll refer to him as Student K–with some of his writing for his senior Lit and Comp class. Vicki’s spot-on comments about rubrics, or writing guides (as we prefer to call them), rang so many bells with my recent classroom experiences, and especially my work with Student K, that I felt the need to toss out my own thoughts and reflections. I want to focus my comments on one particular statement Vicki makes early in her post (the underlining is mine): “My position is that we need both personal comments and rubrics to provide a full and satisfying response to student writing. Together, they form a very solid basis for quality writing assessment. And shouldn’t that be the goal?” And, of course, it should be the goal and the foundation of powerful writing instruction in the classroom.

Before I get going, I want to make sure one thing is clear. When I substitute or work with individual students, I don’t judge the teachers I’m filling in for or those who have assigned the writing I’m helping a student work through. Seriously—that’s not my job. Neither Vicki nor I have ever suggested that there’s only one way to teach writing. We’ve focused our efforts on identifying the philosophies, the strategies, and the practices that work (and have worked over time)—across all grade levels—to develop confident, accomplished young writers. However, I do notice things—classroom routines, a room’s physical set up, instructional practices, the way students respond to directions, and the way students react to and approach writing in the classroom. I do encounter amazing teachers and classrooms all the time, and I don’t call them amazing because they do things exactly as I would. But I also find and am frustrated by, truth be told, missed opportunities in many classrooms especially when it comes to using “rubrics” and personal comments to communicate with student writers as part of writing instruction. (I’m pretty sure that sounds judgmental even if that’s not my intention.)

What follows are a few of my takeaways from Vicki’s post filtered through years in my own classroom, my work with teachers as a professional development presenter, my current work as a substitute teacher, and focused on several of these instructional missed opportunities uncovered during my very recent work with a senior in high school, Student K.

Student K’s Story—Instructional “Missed Opportunities”

Student K came to me wanting some help on an end-of-semester writing assignment for his grade 12 Lit and Comp class. His task was to fictionalize an actual crime story—factual reportage—similar to the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He could not exceed a thousand words and would be assessed with a 4-point, 4-part task-specific rubric. (I’ve included a photo later.) This rubric was handed out at the onset of the assignment. The descriptors broke down levels of performance across four learning targets:

1—I can select and apply effective words and syntax.

2—I can use correct conventions (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) in my writing.

3—I can write narrative pieces.

4—I can use the writing process to improve my writing.

Student K based his writing on a pair of robberies at a local convenience store committed by two high school age boys. (The boys robbed the same store, with the same clerk at the register, within a two-week span.) He had an initial outline, notes from research, two rough drafts—one with “comments” from the teacher, and a copy of the rubric. I would describe my work with Student K as an extended revision conference—we met three days in a row after school for about 90 minutes each visit. (NoteI am absolutely aware that this kind of one-on-one time with a student writer is a luxury and impossible to have during school hours with a classroom full of students regardless of the grade level.) We started with a look at his second rough draft to see what kind of feedback his teacher had provided. What we discovered was, in my mind, a missed opportunity.

Missed Opportunity—As Vicki emphasized in her post, “…a writing rubric can serve as a guide to revision…” Student K’s rough draft did not contain any formative feedback from the rubric. None! The only feedback to Student K were comments related to the paper’s formatting—the word “header” had been written at the top of each page and “works cited/word count” was written on the last page. This is not the kind of specific feedback that opens the to door to meaningful revision. From teacher feedback like this, Student K (or any student) could make the assumption that everything else about the piece was at least “OK—good to go.”

Student writers need to know both what they’re doing well and what they might need to work on to improve their piece. I like to use a feedback term/practice borrowed from a colleague—Stars and a Staircase. Star comments let the student writer know what’s really working in their piece, reinforcing their strengths, while Staircase comments hone in on specific areas where the reader is experiencing confusion or needing to ask questions. These comments help guide the writer’s revision, moving their piece up the “staircase.” As Vicki states in her post, “Just saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘ I loved this piece!’ isn’t enough. Positive shout-outs are heartwarming—for a moment. But like cotton candy, such content-free fluff is here and gone, leaving the writer with a sweet memory and no idea what to do. The best comments not only boost a writer’s courage, but also give her direction for revision or for the next piece…” Feedback, in the form of “scores” or descriptors from a writing guide or written comments from the reader/teacher, is not only about addressing the current piece or assignment, it’s about arming student writers with the tools, confidence, and independence for “the next piece.”

So, in an attempt to nurture the independence that meaningful, specific feedback is able to provide a student writer, the first thing I asked Student K to do was to read his piece out loud with a pen in his hand. While reading his own work aloud, he is both “reader” and “writer.” If he stumbles over something, it’s more than likely that any other reader would as well. The pen was for marking anything he was confused by or didn’t like and for making quick changes/corrections—spelling, missing words, punctuation, sequencing, etc. He was well over his word limit (let the record show that I’m not a fan of “word counts”), so he was also on the lookout for words/phrases/sentences he could eliminate. The pen was also for him to notice and highlight what he felt (as the reader) was working well. We didn’t total up the number of times his pen hit his paper, but it was well over twenty. We did, however, categorize the things he noticed in his own work—here are a few:

*Repetitive word choices

            *Moments of confusion

            *Repetitive transitional language—lots of “and thens”

            *Missing transitions between paragraphs

            *Repeated sentence beginnings—He, The, They, etc.

            *Confusing conclusion—(confused by his own conclusion!)

            *Inconsistent verb tense

            *Figurative language     

I asked him to reflect on this, and the first thing he said was, “I noticed a lot!” Absolutely—imagine that! I asked him to describe a highlight (a Star) and a work-light (a Staircase-something to work on) from his read-through. Student K gave himself a Star for two examples of figurative language he used while describing the two young men featured in his piece:

Example #1“He once was a nice young boy, the type of kid that your parents would want you to hang out with and have as a friend. However, after he took advantage of a female classmate while she was intoxicated at a party, everything changed. Everything. Now people hesitated to make eye contact with him, as if he was Medusa.”

Example #2—“Harris looked older than most of the kids in his grade because he actually was. Being held back two years gives you that certain look. Even in kindergarten, the teachers used to shake their heads, almost as if they could already see the path he was headed towards. Timothy was not the traveler that Robert Frost wrote about. No matter what two roads diverged in front of him, he always took the wrong path. At 2:30 in the morning, when most people are sleeping, the wrong path led Timothy, with his partner in tow, to the Plaid Pantry convenience store.”

Neither of these examples attracted any attention from Student K’s teacher even though the rubric for this task emphasizes the use of figurative language in learning target #3—I can write narrative pieces. Student K’s Staircase comments for himself focused on eliminating/replacing repetitive word choices and sentence beginnings, and on the clarity of his conclusion—he didn’t like the way his piece ended.

At this point, I wanted him to “assess” (not score, not grade) his own writing again, this time using the rubric he had been given. I suggested he look for descriptors—not worrying about the “score”—that he felt matched his writing. He found at least one in each of the four categories, but it was not easy for two reasons.

Missed Opportunity—First, he told me that in this class, he had not used a rubric to “assess” his own writing in this way before. He had also not experienced the practice of using a rubric to “assess” anyone else’s writing. (Deep—possibly judgmental—sigh!) Borrowing words from Vicki’s post again, I (we) believe students need to have “…regular and repeated practice in assessing, discussing, and revising…” both the writing of others, “…students and professionals…” and their own writing. This practice develops independence in student writers who, over time, begin to take charge of their own writing process. In a classroom setting, the discourse (discussion) between students (and the teacher) as they “assess” writing samples, clarifies exactly how a rubric will be used when their own writing is being “assessed” by the teacher using the same rubric. Student K experienced a second problem as he attempted to use the rubric himself. The descriptors in the task-specific rubric he had were really more of a checklist of all the things the teacher would be looking for—“There is correct use of dialogue…,” “There is some use of imagery that appeals to the senses…,” “There are 2 + rough drafts included…,” “Story opens with complete background information…” The reality was that his personal assessment became a process of going through the rubric in a “Got-it, Got-it, Need-it…” manner. For me, that’s one of the problems with many task-specific rubrics. It’s possible to say ”Check!” to each of listed items—Task completed!—and still end up with a piece of writing that is missing something important to the overall quality of the writing—the experience of the reader/audience, the reason for writing in the first place.

Following Student K’s two rounds of personal “assessment,” I did offer some of my own feedback but focused my comments/help on a few of the items he had noticed himself, particularly his conclusion. I left Student K loaded down with a pile of his own revision suggestions, sprinkled with a few of my own.

Just last week, Student K let me know he had received his writing back with a rubric score and a grade, and of course, I was anxious to hear about it.

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

Missed Opportunity—The pictures I’ve included here show the rubric as it was returned to Student K. Based on the X marks, we determined that his rubric scores on the four learning targets were 2, 3, 3, 3. I asked him what the scores meant to him and he replied, “That means I got a B.” We then looked at the paper to review the written comments. (By this point I’m admitting that the judgmental gloves are off!) Student K decided he had found a tiny Star at the end of the comment: “A long falling action but fitting resolution.” Reacting to the handful of Staircase comments—“Use better description,” “Be specific,” “What neighborhood?” “You need much more on this climax! “—Student K said (exactly what I was thinking), “Why didn’t he say something about these on my rough draft?” What really baffled me was that the rubric scores and the written comments, whether taken separately or in combination, had not communicated a clear message to the writer. Quality writing assessment had not been achieved! If Student K’s only takeaway was that he had received a “B,” the teacher could have saved time by not using the rubric or writing even limited comments. Just slap a “B” at the top and move on to the next assignment. (Now that’s judgmental!) Many teachers will say that it takes too much time to use rubrics and personal comments. I contend that by nurturing the independence of student writers—arming them with writing guides and training them to be self-assessors first—actually saves assessment time for teachers.

Knock—Knock! Bang—Bang! Ding—Dong!

Who’s at the door? It’s Opportunity! That’s one of the things you can count on as a teacher—lots of opportunities for taking advantage of instructional opportunities! If your goal as a writing teacher is developing confident, capable student writers, then for me, the path is quality instruction informed by quality assessment. As Vicki urged at the end of her post, “It all comes back to concepts.” And to teach the concepts of good writing, it takes specific practices: First, it takes examples that show students what writers really do. Those examples might come in the form of student writing, novels, nonfiction, picture books, essays, reviews—or samples of our own work. Second, it takes opportunities to discuss these samples as a group, and when that discussion is enhanced with rubrics, you add the power of writers’ language to help students figure out what concepts like organization or fluency are about. And third, it takes extremely well crafted oral and written comments, comments both encouraging and provocative enough to take writers to the next level of performance.”

Opening clear, purposeful lines of communication between you and your student writers is what is most important in helping them know where they stand as writers today and where they could be standing tomorrow.

Reading Recommendations

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

  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  • Soul Serenade: Rhythm and Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

imgres-1imgresimgres-3

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

I have been binge-reading the YA books of author Andrew Smith and want to share some thoughts about this powerful writer. His books are definitely for the grade 9+ crowd, dealing with sensitive, timely, and important issues. His characters and storylines are brutally honest, frequently strange, and often laugh-out-loud.

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

imgresimgres-1

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___ Sharks live in the ocean.

___ Sharks have many teeth.

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

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

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

imgres-5       imgres-6

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

imgres-7

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

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

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

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

vicki_jeff_small

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

No More “Us” and “Them”: Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect. 2012. Written by Lesley Roessing. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 126 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource book

Focus: Encouraging diversity and multicultural sensitivity among middle school students (but fully adaptable for other age groups)

Special features: Exceptional bibliography of resources, numerous charts for in-class use

No More Us and Them

Summary

The beauty of diversity. The power of diversity. You’ll feel it when you read No More “Us” and “Them.” Lesley Roessing’s remarkable little book takes us into a world where mutual respect is transformed from a vague goal into touchable, do-able reality. At the beginning of the year, students are strangers, wary of one another, and viewing differences as assorted manifestations of that dreaded label “weird.” By the end of the year, they have become a community, unearthing commonalities they didn’t know existed, celebrating the very differences they once mistrusted or maligned, and recognizing the many ways in which diversity strengthens a group. This all sounds a little magical, granted. It’s anything but. In fact, it takes a lot of determination, hard work, organizational design, and heart to open students’ eyes so wide that they see their peers, the world, and indeed themselves differently. Teacher and author Lesley Roessing is more than up to the task. She understands how middle school students think and learn, and she charts a path other teachers can follow. Wait, though—will there be time for that in this age of standards and ongoing testing? Yes, actually. This isn’t a new curriculum. This is a way of teaching that integrates beautifully with existing curriculum, and helps middle school educators make the best use possible of current literature, discussions that teach and promote thinking skills, collaborative projects, and more. As you read Lesley’s story and devour her recommendations, you will think, this could be my story, too. I could do this. I can almost guarantee you’ll want to try. Because just think what students could accomplish if they left middle school curious and unafraid, looking forward to what new experiences, travels, and friendships could teach them.

 Features to Notice

1. A foundational philosophy—and a stand against bullying. Roessing’s book opens with a strong Introduction. If you’re like many readers, you’ll be tempted to skip it so that you can get right to the heart of things. Don’t skip this intro. It lays the foundation for everything that follows—and remember, this book is short. You can easily read it in an evening, and that’s good because you may want to read it more than once. The Introduction explains the concept of “otherizing,” a word that now appears in the Urban Dictionary, and refers to the process of separating ourselves from those we perceive as different in some way—any way at all will do. Otherizing is important because it’s often the basis for bullying, a common problem in middle school (and at all levels, for that matter). According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, almost a third of all children between the ages of 12 and 18 admit to being bullied, and nearly two thirds have witnessed an incident. In some locations, as many as ten percent of students fear being bullied so much that they skip school to avoid it, and reports of headaches, stomach aches, loss of appetite, anxiety, aggression, and depression are common. So—how do we stop bullying? According to Roessing, we have several options. We can create a sense of community. We can encourage students themselves, when they witness bullying, to simply say, “Stop it.” Surprisingly, this simple act often brings an end to the bullying in as little as ten seconds. And we can stretch students’ sense of “us.” In other words, we help them to see that the group of “insiders” is not tiny and exclusive, as they’d thought, but expansive and inclusive, ultimately enfolding everyone—including them.

2. Practicality, activities, things to do Monday. Within the same Introduction, Roessing lays out her goal for the book: “This book endeavors to outline ideas for strategies and activities that can be integrated into existing curricula and in lessons that meet curricular standards” (xxii). Indeed. The book opens with ideas for helping students get to know one another better right on Day 1. It comes full circle by the end, closing with a complementary activity to help students see how far they’ve come. In between, Roessing shares a multitude of activities designed to build students’ awareness and increase their comfort in working with one another. You’ll notice that activities are not restricted to the language arts class. Math, science, PE, art, social studies, and history teachers are all encouraged to become involved. Those who like detail will appreciate the many lists and charts that make it easy to see just how to put a lesson together.

3. Getting started. As Lesley herself says, “A community is built cumulatively, one activity at a time” (xxiii). That said, guiding students in their “progression from seeing sameness to valuing diversity” seems like a big, bold task, to say the least. Where does a teacher begin? Roessing reminds us that we usually feel more comfortable around people with whom we have things in common. The problem is, we don’t always see those commonalities because they’re not obvious. We have to draw them out. Roessing begins with simple activities like sharing names and interests. Careful readers will notice that students do more than just list things they like to do. In small groups, they discuss sports, food, hobbies, people, school subjects they love or do not love, and more. Name signs stay on desks, so people can address one another in a personal, proper way. They get a sense that what they’re learning about their peers is important. It’s information to remember and to build on. Other introductory activities increase students’ knowledge of who is good at soccer or math, who can make homemade pasta or bread, who has visited New York, raises dogs, or can change a tire. Students learn things about one another they have never known. The introductory activities culminate with completion of “I Am” and “We Are” poetry, in which students share hopes, fears, anxieties, dreams, whatever they’re willing to put out there. Verbs can be changed, but the basic poetry format goes something like this (greatly shortened from Roessing’s original):

I am . . . an eighth grade student brand new to this school.

I wonder . . . if I’ll survive this year.

I hear . . . a voice in my head saying, “You’ll never pass math.”

I see . . . someone I’d like to make friends with, if only I weren’t so shy.

I want . . .

I pretend . . .

I worry . . .

I cry . . .

I understand . . .

I dream . . .

I try . . .

I am . . . Sara, an extraordinary eighth grader.

When students finish their poems, they engage in choral reading, reading selected lines they feel comfortable sharing. “Without actually pointing it out,” Roessing tells us, “the class can detect how much richer the poem is when most students have something different to say” (9). The journey has begun.

Introductory Name signs

4. Building on similarities. The next few weeks are all about discovering more similarities. Roessing wisely calls on Homeroom teachers to provide, if possible, time for discussion of common interests—favorite films, games, foods, hobbies, classes, books, places to visit. Students can even play short card games or board games if the Homeroom period is long enough to permit it. In language arts classes, students compose poems for two voices, sharing personal thoughts about what they love or look forward to most (See pages 16-21 for elaborate examples of this). In math class, they create graphs to show such things as the percentage of students who prefer pepperoni pizza over mushroom or other toppings. In science class, students do a “what if” exercise, in which they imagine themselves as one element on the periodic table. Iron? Hydrogen? Or—they might imagine themselves as one planet in the universe. Mars? Venus? Jupiter? In a foreign language class, Roessing suggests exploring the origins of names, noticing for example that Sean, Evan, Ian, Juan, Hans, Giovanni, and Jean (along with many others) are all variants of “John.”

In social studies, students explore origins, giving them an opportunity to examine one another’s heritage. Lesley shares a poem titled “Back in the ‘Hood,” where “hood” refers both to her first neighborhood and to childhood itself. Her own example and those of two students—too long to reprint here—are stunning. Here’s my own—inspired by Lesley’s activity—just the first three stanzas:

           I am from tag and tug-of-war,

           Hide-and-seek with a babysitter I didn’t know was 80,

           Building forts from construction scraps,

           Skating on frozen ponds lit only by moonlight.

 

           I am from birch trees plucked from swamps,

           Fresh mowed grass and fragrant lilacs,

           Running through sprinklers to cool off on hot days,

           Late night movies and hot buttered popcorn.

          

           I am from paddling canoes over northern lakes,

           Cutting sturdy Christmas trees with numb fingers,

           Riding horses over fields that knew no fences,

           Licking homemade fudge from a wooden spoon . . .

Enough . . . This review isn’t about me. I’m including this smidgeon of poetry to make a point. Lesley’s exercises are simply irresistible. That, to me, is one of the overwhelming strengths of the book. As you read through her suggestions, and see the sample poems for two voices or the ’hood poems, you’ll find yourself—if you’re like me—drawn in, engaged, composing lines in your head even as you read. You’ll find yourself imagining the fun you will have doing these activities with your students, and sharing snapshots from your own world as you do so. By the way, Roessing suggests allowing ample time for this exploration of similarities: “Throughout the first months of the year, all classes can incorporate a few experiences that allow students to discover their similarities and, therefore, work together that much more effectively and collaboratively” (33).

5. A new metaphor. America, we’ve been told, is a melting pot. But is that the best metaphor for Twenty-First Century thinking? Roessing suggests that Oscar Handlin’s metaphor of America as an orchestra (from “America: A World of Difference,” 1986) may be more fitting. Chapter 3 explores this concept in some depth, showing ways of engaging students in the “orchestra” discussion by having them envision the composition of an orchestra and relating that vision to America’s population. An orchestra comprises numerous instruments, but together they make music that none could replicate alone. Many other metaphors are possible, too—America as a puzzle, bouillabaisse, painting, collage, crayon box, garden, and so on. Your students might come up with their own ideas, as well as their own notions of how they fit into the larger picture. Seeing America as a garden, one student imagined herself as a bee, another as a butterfly, another as a shrub sheltering the flowers from the sun. As Roessing so fittingly points out, America has grown remarkably in complexity since the melting pot metaphor first took hold: Our great grandparents may have shared one nationality, ethnicity, and religion, but we, their descendants, are typically of multiple nationalities, ethnicities, and religions (37).

 6. Whole-class collaboration. Within a few weeks, students have introduced themselves to one another in several ways, and they’re getting to know one another—but to strengthen the bond, Roessing sets up ways for them to work together. Any complex whole-class project will work here, but the one she recommends is the Home Front Fair because it involves engaging multiple intelligences. Think about it. Students know one another the way you might know new neighbors who moved in a few weeks ago and share your passion for gardening and bridge. But maybe you don’t yet know whether they are musical, kinesthetic, visual and spatial, linguistic, or naturalists. Are they like Maya Angelou, Warren Buffet, Frank Lloyd Wright, Norah Jones, Steve Jobs—or Jane Goodall? Time to find out. The complexity of this project defies summation in a few words, but let me give you a few favorite highlights, and I’ll ask you to imagine the various things students learn from their participation—and the many, many standards that are addressed as they do so:

  •  The teacher provides a brief overview of how America contributed to World War II on the Home Front.
  • With the teacher’s help, students explore the theory of multiple intelligences, based on Howard Gardner’s research.
  • Students (using self-reflection and the Teele Inventory) determine their own strengths among possible kinds of intelligence. (For many, it is stunningly eye opening to discover strengths they never recognized in themselves when they looked on “intelligence” as a mysterious one-dimensional force.)
  • To allow application of all intelligences, students construct a model Home Front in three parts: a USO canteen, a live radio broadcast, and a general store (all of which would have contributed in some way to America’s war effort in the early 1940s).
  • The students form three groups, and assign roles based on their identified intelligences. For example, the board of directors might involve persons with interpersonal intelligence. Those with linguistic skills might write scripts or advertisements for the radio. The musically inclined would perform. Those with visual-spatial skills could be designers for the general store, while those with the math skills would manage the books.
  • Over the next few weeks, students research their component of the Fair, preparing for a presentation to the larger community. This research involves multiple interviews along with reading. As Roessing states, “Everything created, worn, said, and done should be based on research and cited on note cards” so that it can be verified (44).The beauty of a complex project like this one is that it offers students opportunities to meet standards requirements across a broad spectrum of skills—research, group collaboration, knowledge of history, reading and writing, speaking and listening, technology, and more. In addition, students also learn that working as a team magnifies learning at every stage. And finally, as parents and other relatives visit the fair, provide interviews, or offer artifacts for display, the bond between school and community is strengthened immeasurably.

7. “Making stone soup.” Most of us have heard some version of the universal folk tale in which hungry visitors to a village beg for food, and finding none, proceed to boil stones in water to make stone soup. Gradually, each member of the village contributes something small—a carrot here, an onion there—until the stone soup turns into real soup. “When each person has something to add, no matter how little, it makes the end product superior” (p. 50). The Stone Soup tale is the basis for small-group collaboration, a concept embraced in many classrooms, and now in many workplaces as well, where employees are often assigned to teams for purposes of completing a project. The idea is not that everyone does a little of everything, but rather—like the stone soup villagers—that each person makes a significant contribution based what he or she does best.

Roessing outlines several options for small-group collaboration, including (my favorite) the design of a town, city, village, or hamlet of any type. Students determine the town’s size and location, map it, and lay out basics: industries, commercial enterprises, schools, hospitals, roadways, recreation centers, and so forth. Each student then assumes the role of a prominent member of the town, and creates an original short story with that member as a protagonist. Combining their individual stories, they build a book, with each student not only serving as a contributing author, but also taking on a specialized writing task—document designer, illustrator, dialogue coach, reviser, editor.

Other small group collaborative projects involve the creation of newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, and so forth. Small-group collaboration intensifies the mutual respect and interdependence that is established through whole-class collaboration. Students find that teamwork builds learning. Yes, there are times not to work together—during testing, for example. Students quickly learn to respect that. But teaming is not cheating. On the contrary, it is a simultaneously efficient and demanding approach to learning, in which everyone must contribute by speaking, listening, sharing knowledge, and coaching. No sitting on the sidelines. Desks in rows can encourage aloneness and silence. Desks in circles cannot.

8. The class where “Everyone is an expert.” Do you know your own students’ special areas of expertise? If you’re like most teachers, you can probably say yes regarding some of your students—but probably not all. Chapter 5 provides several fascinating ways to uncover students’ specialties. Oh, and as a teacher, you get to participate, too.

One first step is to fill out a personal survey, asking what you know a lot about with respect to things like—

  • Hobbies and activities
  • Books
  • Movies and television
  • Travel and places to visit
  • Jobs
  • Sports
  • Foods
  • Fitness
  • Animals

. . . and more. Together, you and your students can brainstorm additions to this list. As Roessing has discovered, areas of expertise are unpredictable, to say the least: “In one classroom, a student showed ferrets in competitions; another was a skateboarding champion. The quiet girl in the back of the room had a black belt in karate, and two students had snakes as pets and now someone with whom to discuss the trials and tribulations of snake feeding” (62).

Expertise is sometimes highly focused. Roessing has discovered that students in a writing class like to know the go-to person for advice on something as precise as comma placement, effective use of a spell-check program, proofreading, crafting attention-getting leads, coming up with vivid details, or scanning the Web. In math class, there might be an expert in long division, square root calculation, graph interpretation, or a hundred other things. Parallel areas of expertise exists regarding any content area, and knowing them gives immeasurable self-esteem to the identified experts, while providing a built-in reason for others to seek them out.

9. Every Day Is Multicultural Day. Many schools have a Multicultural Day or Multicultural Week, when the customs, foods, clothing, and attributes of various cultures are celebrated. Roessing suggests, however, that by restricting celebration to just one day or week, instead of making it an ongoing part of the curriculum, we tend—however inadvertently—to emphasize the “otherness” of the very cultures we choose to focus on. She also points out that such celebrations often highlight differences rather than commonalities: We eat this; they eat that. She suggests that instead of having students bring in random foods from several cultures, it might be “more advantageous to have students make or bring in foods from different cultures that are similar and investigate the reason for the differences” (68). She cites Norah Dooley’s picture book series: Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Brings Noodles, and Everybody Serves Soup (all referenced in the accompanying bibliography).

Multicultural literature is a natural entree into a broader world. You will love (I did) Roessing’s proposed “diversity chart,” which helps students track the divergent literature they read by noting not only differences in race or ethnicity, but also diversity with respect to socioeconomic status, religion, exceptionality, geography, age, and more.

It’s no surprise that multicultural studies are not only for language arts. It’s vital for students to recognize the contributions made by various cultures to math, science, art, theater, music, sports, history, and other areas. As Roessing points out, “Young students tend to think that whatever they study originated in the United States and, unless they study the specific race or ethnicity of the inventor, by default he, or she, is a member of the predominant culture” (70). She goes on to cite just a few examples that probably not many students would correctly match up: coffee from Yemen, the calendar from Egypt, gunpowder, printing, and stirrups from China, dentistry from India.

Did you know that there are over 1,500 variants of the Cinderella tale from around the world? Roessing takes advantage of this dazzling fact by having students, in groups, read several variations of their choice and compare and contrast them using a wide range of criteria. Roessing’s detailed plan will guide you through this multi-faceted lesson that can culminate in something as simple as an oral presentation—or as complex as a scripted play involving stage and costume design. At the very least, students have a chance to see how certain motifs—strong heroine, impossible task, a social occasion (and the opportunity it provides!), wretched villains—are handled across various cultures.

Cnderella 3

In case you’re thinking that looking up 1,500 Cinderella variants will be a heady task, fear not. Roessing has done most of the work for you. They’re listed in a handy appendix that even categorizes them geographically, and includes some modern U.S. variations you may recognize, such as Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson.

In this same wonderful chapter, you’ll find infinitely helpful guides to script writing and costume/prop design—just in case stage production is the favorite presentation mode for some of your students.

10. Many ways to read. Once upon a time, teachers assigned books and students read them. Everyone read the same book and answered the same questions—all posed by the teacher, who presumably knew the right questions to ask. Reading has changed significantly.

Though students still read some books as a class, they also read in small groups or with partners, often choosing books from a list. In addition, they read articles, short stories, poems, essays. And many come up with questions they believe are significant, and answer them by writing essays and stories of their own. Older students read or listen to picture books, recognizing that increasingly, selections from this genre are aimed at their age group. Discussions of issues like bullying or body image may spill over into health classes, while biographies may be discussed in history or math, and books detailing the struggles of disenfranchised groups may become part of the social studies curriculum.

The short but wonderful Chapter 8, titled “Reading for Respect,” shows how all these approaches can be integrated within one classroom—or across the curriculum. Consider how much understanding is gained when five members of a book club read different books on bullying, then discuss how various authors treat this subject. The richness of such discussion is impressive, and the resulting presentation to the class as a whole is infinitely more interesting for other students than hearing about one book in isolation.

If you haven’t tried working with book clubs, this chapter will offer some guidance to get you started, and best of all, Roessing also provides an incredibly complete bibliography of resources emphasizing the issues and topics covered in the book—“tolerance, alienation, fitting in, bullying, acceptance, body image, self-respect, multiculturalism, building community, and respecting diversity” (105). Resources are categorized: picture books, short stories, essays and poetry, novels, memoirs, nonfiction self-help, periodicals, and books about games. It’s an impressive, easy-to-use list.

11. Ending the year—and coming full circle. Lesley Roessing describes a classroom scene in which a student comes across a photograph of a young woman wearing a series of neck rings to stretch her neck. “That’s different,” the student remarks (67), and it is her use of the word different that is so striking. By the close of the year, teachers are more likely to hear words like different, interesting, unusual or unique—in place of the pejorative weird. The former are words that convey respect. As we grow more respectful of others, we notice differences in a way that piques our curiosity and inspires us to learn more—instead of tempting us to ridicule what seems foreign or unexpected. How fitting that Roessing suggests closing this year of learning with activities that focus on respect.

The first is a favorite of mine, one I have done with both students and adults, always with remarkable and sometimes surprising results. Students choose an artifact from home that has special meaning for them and tell the story that goes with this artifact—its importance, origin, or meaning in their lives. Stories are translated into written form, and many are illustrated or even augmented by video. Though many students choose artifacts from ancestors or other cultures, some choose something as simple and basic as a stuffed animal or baby blanket. And here’s what’s interesting. Such trust has been built within this community that an object like a baby blanket is treated with the same respect as a rare sculpture. What matters is the student—and that student’s choice. Which brings us to the second closure activity . . .

The Ubuntu Project is indeed special, and I haven’t space here to even begin to do it justice. (As the saying goes, you must read the book.) According to a justice from the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Ubuntu “recognizes a person’s status as a human being, entitled to unconditional respect, dignity, value and acceptance from the members of the community such person happens to be part of” (p. 119). This definition gives us a beginning, but the concept of Ubuntu really defies translation. It is a fluid combination of respect, reverence, humaneness, and cultural appreciation.

The project, fittingly, asks students to read several pieces that support this philosophy, then provide their own personal interpretations of Ubuntu. They may do this through music, song, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, or any medium other than writing. The emphasis is on creativity—and risk. They are to take a chance, step away from safety, and trust that their community of learners will receive their interpretation with understanding.

Students also finish their year with a “We Are” poem that echoes the “I Am” poem written so long ago before they began this journey of abandoning otherizing and embracing respect. In addition, together they complete a capstone project, some work of art to leave at the school—a mosaic, mural, collage, etc. By this time, they have a lot to say.

Closing thoughts . . . I cannot recommend this book enough. I found it inspiring. Though tiny, it is filled with wisdom and insights on life, on teaching well, on making the most of meaningful literature, and on creating a culture based on respect within any classroom. What I could not help noticing is the way in which the activities presented here change not only external behavior, but the internal feelings of the players. I don’t want to say the students became different people because I don’t believe that’s true. Rather, I think they become what is possible, their best selves, unleashing the compassion, understanding, and humanity that was always there. I encourage you to spend time with this book. You’ll want to make Ubuntu part of your classroom, too.

Lesley2Teaching Cinderella 2

About the author . . .

Lesley Roessing was a middle school teacher for over twenty years. She is now Senior Lecturer in the College of Education and Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Armstrong State University in Savannah and serves as Editor of Connections, the GCTE journal. Lesley has written four books for teachers: The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension, No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities that Promote Peer Respect, Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed—The Sentences They Saved, and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core as well as articles for NCTE, ALAN, AMLE, and NWP. She works with K-12 pre-service and in-service teachers.

vicki_jeff_small

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Coming up next, Jeff will be offering his insights regarding a book titled In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher.

As you may have noticed, we’re featuring nonfiction writing this fall, and Vicki will be posting several reviews of incredible new nonfiction books for students throughout the fall.

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

 

I’m going to be a travel writer in my next life. Travelers—regardless of where they go—never run out of writing topics.

My husband and I (with good friends from Nebraska) were lucky enough to visit Australia and New Zealand this past January and February. This was to be the trip of a lifetime, and it took us over eight years to plan it, save up, and make it happen. It was worth every moment of planning and every penny spent. If you’ve been lucky enough to go yourself, then you know. If not, I hope you get the chance.

In a Sunburned Country

In part, this trip was Bill Bryson’s fault. In 2000, Bryson wrote a book called In a Sunburned Country. I discovered it in an airport bookstore some years ago, and fell in love. This book was a gift from the voice gods. I laughed until I cried through most of it (making other airline passengers desperately jealous) and wished fervently that Bill lived nearby and would drop over now and then to chat. Most of all, I wished that I could somehow, some way, get to Australia. Among my favorite passages was this one (page 6), which I would go on to share in countless workshops, and which (I don’t doubt for a moment) prompted teachers across America to buy Bryson’s book (and perhaps, to plan their own visit down under):

[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.

Who could resist booking the next flight? I learned a great deal about Australia from In a Sunburned Country, but I also learned a thing or two about writing. Bryson doesn’t try to tell everything. He picks his moments and details carefully, and he never glosses things over as many travel writers do. Also, he never settles for big, sweeping generalities: e.g., Australia sure is vast! He has a knack for digging up the little known details—the toxic caterpillars, the attacking seashells.

Throughout our trip, I asked myself (as I was having the time of my life), Which of these experiences would I write about if I did my own travel book? Following are the six I chose. I’m presenting the “sweeping generalities” version first to emphasize the difference. (Students will often say things like, “I gave you details—I told you Australia was vast!”) What they don’t realize is, that’s an introductory comment that leaves readers wanting the story lurking underneath.

Highlight 1: Showering at Sea

The Sweeping View: Showering on a ship can be tricky!

The details . . .

We spent a few days cruising from Auckland in northern New Zealand down to Milford Sound, then across the Tasman Sea to Australia. One of the many things you learn while cruising is how to keep your balance when the floor is constantly moving. Another is to adapt to living in a small space. The truth is, most of us probably occupy far more space than we need throughout our lives, but at sea humans quickly learn to fit all essentials into a room of less than 200 square feet. And why not? It holds a bed, couch, two chairs, a television, storage cupboards, a closet, dresser and mirror, refrigerator, and bathroom with toilet, sink, shelving, and . . . a 2-foot by 2-foot shower.

IMG_0282Admittedly, unless you’re exceptionally slim, the shower is a tight fit. In fact, a better motivator to lose weight I’ve yet to experience. (Trying on tight swimsuits under fluorescent lighting is a poor second.) You don’t want to twirl around, and you don’t want to stick your elbows out. No vigorous lathering either. Within moments, you learn to keep your feet slightly apart and to keep one hand on the wall-mounted handle bar or one of the fixtures at all times. Lose your balance on a big wave, and you’ll get a nasty spurt of extremely hot or cold water or a mouthful of shampoo (if you’ve gotten that far). I had trouble only on the Indian Ocean sailing from Esperance to Perth, when we hit the largest waves of our trip. They’re unpredictable, and you cannot time them. (Wonderful for sleeping—not so good for standing in wet places.)

It isn’t easy getting shampoo out with one hand (because you’re holding on with the other); the trick I learned is to pre-loosen the cap prior to getting in. “Shower prep,” which became a new routine, included pre-loosening all shower product caps, turning the shower head so overly cold or hot water wouldn’t hit you directly—you do need to get in before you turn the shower on so you don’t wind up flooding the floor—and of course, placing your towel within easy reach, keeping in mind that lurching toward the sink is likely to be your exit style. If you drop the shampoo or shower gel while you’re still showering, you can bend over to get it (not recommended), or squat down (you have to let go of your “safety handle” though), or just wait until you’re done and retrieve it when you get out (the best option). I should mention that my husband and I both quickly learned to shower in under three minutes.

Highlight 2: Here Comes the Sun

The Sweeping View: Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound, and Milford Sound are beautiful, though seldom sunny.

The details . . .

“This is your captain, speaking to you from the bridge.” These words, in our captain’s soon-familiar Greek accent, greeted us daily, and were usually followed by a routine summation of our longitude, latitude and cruising speed. On one memorable occasion, though, the captain added these words—rarely heard by anyone at sea: “If Captain Cook had encountered this weather when he entered Dusky Sound, he would have named it something else.”

We entered Dusky Sound just at dawn, encountering clouds and mist—and were told this was typical, that the beauty of the area was due after all to the daily rain. It was still beautiful, especially when clouds opened just enough to let ethereal sunlight streak through. The ship slowed to a speed of 7 or 8 knots, creating a floaty, dreamlike feeling.

Within two hours, as if on cue, the clouds had all but departed, devoured by the sun. People who had been huddling in the top deck viewing room to keep dry now flooded the outer walkways, cameras and cell phones in hand. Getting a spot at the railing (any railing) became immediately difficult, and walking without blocking someone’s photographic shot of a lifetime was impossible. Beautiful spots are frequently described as breathtaking, but on this day, I learned the true meaning of that word. Gasps were literally audible everywhere, and people spoke in whispers, as if entering a sanctuary.

IMG_0404The captain later told us that in his 20 years of cruising the sounds (which he does multiple times per season), he had never, not even once, witnessed a day such as this, never seen azure blue skies in any of the fjords—and never expected to do so again in his lifetime. We’d been cautioned to wear jackets and sweaters. I never unpacked mine, and basking in the sun, was thankful for the thin shirt I’d bought on a whim in Honolulu before our flight.

The captain also mentioned that had it been raining, as per usual, we’d have seen many more waterfalls in this uninhabited paradise. I don’t think anyone missed them.

IMG_0452IMG_0486

Highlight 3: Criminal Justice

The Sweeping View: Australia was settled by convicts.

The details . . .

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison. (Bryson, page 6).

Our first stop in Australia was Sydney. Sydney is a feast for the senses. The harbor is a perpetual motion machine, filled with every sort of vessel imaginable from kayaks to cruise ships, with ferry boats of all sizes, yachts, catamarans, and sailboats all vying for space, juggling their way through an intricate mesh of oceanic right-of-way rules. Coffee. The aroma is everywhere. And (sorry, Starbucks) it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Almost good enough to skip the cream. Almost. (And if you ask for cream, you get whipped cream—ask for milk and you’re just as likely to get half and half, which is admittedly much better.) Music plays along the quays, and it is hauntingly good—everything from country to classical, right there on the walkways, with best guitarists, drummers, violin and base players imaginable. Breweries and pubs abound, all atmospheric and bustling with visitors and locals. That irresistible Aussie accent is everywhere, but there’s an intermingling of German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and other languages I didn’t quickly recognize. To say it’s picturesque is like describing Santa as a chap who favors red. It’s also overwhelming. So the best place to begin (especially for newbies like us) seemed to be an overview tour.

IMG_0519IMG_0514

As we quickly discovered, Aussie (pronounced OZ-ee in Australia, not Aw-see, as we Americans typically say) tour guides are extremely well-informed about history—British, American, and Australian. They laugh (good naturedly, never in a mean spirited way) at our inability to answer questions like, Who was Lafayette? A favorite topic (for them and for us as listeners) is how Australia got its start as a penal colony. I’d had a vague vision of this: killers, hoodlums, embezzlers and jewel thieves chained to ships, dumped on the rocks, and left to make their way as best they could. Amazingly, I got the rocks part right. And there is to this day a section of Sydney known as The Rocks, now filled with breweries, pubs, boutique shops and other touristy hangouts. But most of the story I got wrong. As it so happens, “convicts” in the bad old glory days of the UK were often imprisoned for such petty offenses as stealing a button. No kidding. As in What are you in for? Answer: Button theft. Most of these original settlers were anything but dangerous.

Originally, British convicts were sent to America. America got fed up with this practice, however, and told the UK in so many words to find another location for their deportees. “What about that big island way down south?” some Brit suggested, and the idea of settling Australia in this unconventional manner was born. It was not without its problems.

First off, the idea was not to imprison these convicts, but to put them to work—herding sheep or cattle, farming, manufacturing, and so on. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have a trade and knew nothing of farming or ranching. Being game isn’t enough when it comes to farming; you have to know what you’re doing. The early settlers began plowing fields and sowing seed in April, as they had in England. But the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed, so the first few crops were abysmal failures.

This state of affairs led to Plan B, requesting ONLY those convicts who had a trade or useful agricultural experience—including medical people, teachers, cooks, farmers, boot makers, blacksmiths, and so forth. (To this day, both Australia and New Zealand continue the practice of asking prospective immigrants to demonstrate precisely, and in elaborate detail, how they plan to contribute to the society’s economy before considering admittance. I know this because I asked—and yes, I did consider moving.) Being assigned to Australia became a sort of mark of achievement.

You may be wondering how it works to simply turn convicts loose to pursue their careers. Well, remember, most were not particularly menacing. Further, confinement wasn’t really necessary. There was no point in running away because (as Bill Bryson so clearly points out), survival outside the city limits was impossible. Of those few who did attempt escape, none survived. Not one.

You know how the story goes . . . if you’re not chomped by sharks or crocodiles . . . Oh, and we should also mention that Australia is home to some impressive spiders. Hold out your hand, fingers splayed. That’s about the size. Not to mention the snakes . . . and then there’s that lack of water . . .

Highlight 4: The Sydney Opera House

The Sweeping View: The Sydney Opera House is spectacular.

The details . . .

IMG_0527IMG_0536

The Sydney Opera House is impossible to overlook. Like Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo,” it simply exudes class and grace. It’s impossibly gorgeous from every angle. The first question our tour guide asked us, majestically swinging her arm in the direction of the roof: “What do these architectural features remind you of?” Wings, some said. Sails, others offered. Officially, they’re known as shells. Whatever you call them, photographers cannot get enough. The opera house may well be the most photographed landmark on earth.

The day we were lucky enough to visit, a lot was happening. In the Concert Hall, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing music from Faust. The Concert Hall also houses the world’s largest pipe organ; gleaming gold, it’s roughly the size of the average American living room. In the Joan Sutherland Theater, singers and actors were preparing to stage another production. Usually, groups are not allowed to enter either theater because groups make noise—and even the tiniest noise distracts both actors and musicians. For some reason (maybe we looked unusually orderly) we got to go in both. (First sun in the fjords—and now this.)

We put on headphones to hear the tour guide, who could not raise her voice above a whisper. The acoustics (thanks to the lush Australian birch wood interior) are such that the slightest breath, shuffle of feet, or flick of a gum wrapper can be heard throughout either of the main theaters, so we were firmly cautioned not to speak at all and to step as quietly as if sneaking past a sleeping tiger.

One or two at a time, we slipped sideways into the upper balcony of the Joan Sutherland Theater through a black velvet curtain so enormous and heavy you expected at any moment to encounter the Phantom of the Opera. Upon entering, we had to quickly (and silently) pull the curtain closed behind us to shut out all light. The theater itself (except for the stage) was so dark and steep that I felt certain I would trip on the invisible stairs. Inch by inch, toe by toe, I felt my way up to a cushy seat in the top balcony, my husband insistently tugging me along (He can see in the dark). Though I was as far back and high up from the stage as you could get, I could see and hear every word the director spoke as he moved actors about the set. The sets, incredibly elaborate and colorful, are done on a huge elevator platform a full floor below the stage, then raised up for each performance. This ingenious approach allows the Opera House to schedule, say, Madame Butterfly for the afternoon, then perhaps Faust for the evening—simply by rolling a new platform into place and raising it to stage height.

IMG_0545After exiting as silently as possible, we went outdoors for a close-up look at those magnificent shells. That iconic white roof is not painted, as many people think. It’s composed of 1,000,050 tiles—from snowy white to mellow cream. They reflect light in such a way as to give the roof its perpetually dazzling appearance, whether in sun or the glow of floodlights that illuminate it every evening. Unexpectedly, the tiles are cool to the touch, even under the intense heat of Australia’s famously relentless sun.

The Opera House, we learned, was designed by world-renowned architect Jørn Utzon of Denmark. His design was one of one of 233 entries in a competition, and ironically enough, was at first rejected. Several architects, however, kept circling back to Utzon’s design, seeing it as more visionary than bizarre, and in 1957, he was proclaimed the winner. Whatever they saw in Utzon’s design was later recognized by others, and in 2003, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The citation read as follows:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is [Utson’s] masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.

Indeed, for many it is a symbol of creativity itself. Receipt of this well-deserved prize had to be bittersweet, however, for it followed years of controversy and tension between Utzon and the SOHEC (Sydney Opera House Executive Committee). Ultimately, some funds intended to pay his workers were withheld, and Utzon resigned from the project—though he was later brought back as a consultant. It seems some people are irreplaceable after all. Sadly, though, he never got to see (except in photos) the fully completed building that was undoubtedly his work of genius. Utzon was not even present at the opening and dedication by Queen Elizabeth in October of 1973. The Opera House was originally slated to cost $7 million and scheduled to be finished in 1963. It was not completed until ten years later, and wound up costing a whopping $102 million.

IMG_0573

We left Sydney at night, when (to my eye) the harbor is at its most exquisite. I felt a genuine physical ache as I watched the harbor landmarks shrink and the lights dim in the ship’s wake. The last thing I recall seeing as we pulled out of port was the Sydney Opera House, stunningly situated between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Royal Botanical Gardens. A proper setting for an empress.

Highlight 5: A Living Dinosaur

The Sweeping View: The cassowary is a very large bird, descended from dinosaurs.

The details . . .

Prior to visiting Australia, I doubt I’d have known much about cassowaries were it not for a remarkable book called Birdology by one of my all-time favorite authors, Sy Montgomery. The whole book is fascinating, but I was especially intrigued by the chapter “Birds Are Dinosaurs,” which details Montgomery’s research on cassowaries, and her encounters with them in Queensland. In her introduction to this remarkable creature (page 49), she explains,

To the nimble likes of predatory Velociraptors, birds owe their speed and their smarts. To dinosaurs, they owe their otherworldly appeal—and as well, surely, some of their transcendent mystery and beauty. For this is one of the great miracles of birds, greater, perhaps, than that of flight: when the chickens in my barnyard come to my call, or when I look into the sparkling eye of a chickadee, we are communing across a gap of more than 300 million years.

Cassowaries are big. By bird standards, huge. The largest can weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Like ostriches, they walk (stride is more accurate) or run. They cannot fly (anymore—they could once), and if they could fly, it’s daunting to imagine the wings that would be required. Happily, they are mostly vegetarian, largely because they have no teeth. They do stomp and devour both lizards and rats. They also forage for berries and seeds—and have been seen gazing at butterflies, just before eating them. Though they don’t seek out larger prey, they are more than capable of defending themselves, thanks to sharp killing claws (very reminiscent of Jurassic Park). When it feels threatened, the cassowary (which already towers over most creatures, including shorter people), can leap an impressive five feet into the air and come down with deadly force, using this lethal claw like a knife, eviscerating whatever is unfortunate enough to be standing too close. In fact, these birds have been known to kill people, though lethal attacks are rare. They are highly protective of their chicks and eggs, and cassowaries will charge and even strike if they perceive that their young are in danger or their nests are about to be robbed. Interestingly, it’s the male that guards the eggs and raises the chicks to adolescence—when they are evicted. Once the nest is built and the eggs laid, the female leaves home. (Yes, I do know what you’re thinking—and you’re not the first.)

Unless you live in the Queensland rain forest, the odds of glimpsing a cassowary in the wild are small. We did, though—through the window of our tour bus. This bird had just strolled casually across the road right in front of the bus, unaware and fearless. They don’t imagine anything can hurt them (though whether this is the result of confidence or simple lack of imagination I can’t say), and most cassowaries that die in the wild are killed by buses or cars, though occasionally one is done in by exceptionally ferocious dogs (When dogs and cassowaries meet, the odds are in the bird’s favor).

IMG_1077I didn’t get a photo that day—wrong side of the bus. But I did come eye to eye with several cassowaries at a wildlife sanctuary outside Sydney, en route to the famous Blue Mountains. I must say, there is no warmth in that gaze. None. This is clearly not a pet, nor does this bird exhibit the slightest interest in or curiosity about humans. They notice us the way we might notice, say, an ant. Unless we happen to be roadblocks (not advised), potential threats or conveyors of food, we are simply elements of the ever changing landscape. There is no sign on the cassowary compound saying “Don’t touch,” but I doubt most people would need to be warned. Those ancient eyes are warning enough.

IMG_1147

Highlight 6: Hugging (mostly thinking of hugging) a wallaby

The Sweeping View: Wallabies are adorable!

And now for the details . . .

Kangaroos are masters of their domain, and as such, command attention and respect. They become tame quickly if food is about, and more than once at various roadstops we were warned not to approach too close or attempt to pet them. Kangaroos can be extremely aggressive, even hostile. They are impatient if food isn’t forthcoming. They don’t bite—they kick. And when they kick, they mean it, and they can cause serious injury.IMG_1127

Wallabies, on the other hand, are extremely shy creatures. They are less than half the size of even small kangaroos, and look downright cuddly. If they were stuffed toys, you’d want to take them home even if you didn’t have any kids. Like kangaroos, they love treats and enjoy being hand fed. But unlike kangaroos, they don’t demand anything, and will wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . making sure you are friendly.

The Featherdale Wildlife Park (near the Blue Mountains) that housed the cassowaries also had wallabies—many of them. Unlike the cassowaries, which are confined (thank heavens), the wallabies roam freely, and you can talk to them, pet them (if you’re lucky enough to get that close), and feed them. The sanctuary staff don’t want them eating pretzels and jelly beans (sold to tourists in great quantities), so they stuff “wallaby food” (a dried, seedy grass) into ice cream cones. You hold a cone, and if you’re lucky, a wallaby will come up and eat from it.

IMG_1111

It took a lot of coaxing to get that first wallaby to approach me. I knelt down low, talking to it in much the way you might talk to a kitten or puppy. He was very unsure, but in time, he did come up to me and take that first nibble. Wallabies are careful eaters. They don’t take big bites, and they chew for a long while. This helps a small amount of food last long enough that you can reach out ever so slowly and stroke that divinely soft fur—softer than mink. Their front paws are like tiny hands, and they will reach out to hold the food as they take a bite.

IMG_1117IMG_1121

When nothing dire happened to Wallaby #1, the others gained courage. In moments, I had two feeders, then three, and finally four. I would have had more, but by then I was out of food. Indeed, one of the wallabies reached out and took the final remnant in his “hands.” I discovered quickly that wallabies (at least these wallabies—conditioned through months of cone training) don’t really favor dried grass. Who can blame them? They prefer the cones, and eat that part almost exclusively. Also, they have very sharp front teeth, top and bottom (needed in the wild to munch grasses), and though they are anything but aggressive, you do want to be careful where you place your fingers on the cone. On a trip of incredible adventures, it was unquestionably my wallaby encounter that stood out most.

In conclusion . . .

I could have written about so many other things, among them . . .

  • Watching kangaroos bound over the fields outside Melbourne.
  • Seeing a mother crocodile guard her nest along the Daintree River.
  • Dealing with a sink (in Port Douglas) that would not behave, and continuously left us soaking wet.
  • Having toilets on board ship cease flushing (luckily, this didn’t last too long).
  • Eating heavenly gelato on Manly Beach—after riding the half-hour ferry from Sydney.
  • Having residents of Auckland not only direct us but actually guide us to a local drugstore. The people of New Zealand are not just courteous and friendly, they’re sensitive and kind. All the time.
  • Learning that Australian snakes, while deadly, are also shy and will depart when they sense vibrations from your footsteps—and then being told to “stay on the path” anyway. Shy. Not going to test that theory.
  • Circling Alice Springs for over an hour because our plane was “too heavy to land” and we had to burn up heavy fuel.
  • Landing in Alice Springs and wishing I were still in the air conditioned plane (just kidding).
  • Walking through Hyde Park to the Botanical Gardens and experiencing the only downhill moving walkway I’ve ever encountered—so fast you are literally launched off the end.
  • Riding the world’s steepest railway in the scenic Blue Mountains.
  • Looking up into the sky far out at sea and realizing I had never, ever really seen stars . . .

. . . and too many more things to list. I chose these six because they’re the ones I keep reliving. And because when friends ask about our trip, most of my stories hearken back to one of these adventures.

What if you haven’t been to Australia??

By the way, I don’t believe for a moment that you have to visit Australia or New Zealand to have something to write about. One of my favorite essays EVER (student or professional) was written by an eighth grader and titled “Parking with Dad.” It described in hilarious detail the tedium of endlessly circling parking lots to find that “perfect” parking spot where nothing could happen to Dad’s car. Whether our travels take us to Australia or K-Mart, there are always things that stand out. Learning to recognize those moments or experiences (whether they last a minute or a day) is important for any writer.

Something to Try

Here’s something to try with your students: Have them list things, big and small, that happen over a specified period of time—a weekend, a week, a month, whatever. Shoot for a list of 50-100 with older students, 10-20 with younger. Then ask them to identify three they could write about. Do this with them so you can share your list, which (I guarantee) they will love. You (and your students) can write about these highlights or not. But do share the lists (or selections) with others, and ask them to help you identify the ones they’d most like to hear about—this is nearly always a surprise. The purpose of the exercise is to talk about why certain choices stand out for us, and what makes for a “good” writing topic. Where do we get our writing ideas? From life.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’re going to take a small hiatus, allowing ourselves (and you) a welcome summer break! Please enjoy it to the fullest, and if you even think of going to Australia or New Zealand, we would love to hear about it. Meantime, Jeff and I will be reading some fascinating books and preparing to share them with you beginning sometime in August. We can’t tell you the titles because the excitement would be too much—but you won’t be disappointed! As always, thank you for stopping by. Don’t forget us over the summer, and please come back often and bring friends. 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. And please . . . Give every child a voice.