Tag Archive: writing instruction


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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Brief Introduction by Vicki

Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand, and while composing a post related to that marvelous adventure (to appear here soon!), I stumbled upon yet another opportunity–the chance to revisit Diddorol, the magical gaming kingdom developed by middle school teacher Larry Graykin, who is easily one of the most inventive teachers I’ve ever encountered. Writing instruction in Larry’s classroom has all the charm and allure of any video game, and in the four years since I interviewed him last, I learned that Diddorol has evolved. The rules for earning points in this gaming system may appear complex, but everything comes into focus if you keep in mind that Graykin’s goals are ingeniously simple: to motivate student writers–big time, to get them not only knowing but actually using the six traits, to maximize their opportunities to work collaboratively in teams, to expose students to as many forms of writing (e.g., fiction and nonfiction) within a short time as possible, and to ensure that every student has an opportunity some way, somehow, to show off his or her strengths–editing, voice, word choice, original thinking, or whatever. But enough from me. Let’s let Larry, who invented the kingdom, tell its story . . .

Kingdom of Diddorol Poster

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

Choosing a Topic Based on a Common Theme

In Larry’s Own Words

During the summer of 2012, as most people tuned in to watch the world’s best athletes compete in the Olympics, I was puzzling and planning.  The prior school year, I had piloted a game overlay about a fantasy Kingdom called Diddorol. You can learn about that here:

https://sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/gaming-meets-the-six-traits/

And in more detail, here in a recent article I wrote for In Perspective:

http://www.ohiorc.org/adlit/InPerspective/Issue/2015-03/Article/vignette2.aspx ].

The experience was amazing for both my students and me, but at the end of the year, I had a problem: As my class was multiage grades 7 & 8, I was going to have half of the same students coming back to me. I could not use the same game again…that’d be boring.

Well, I called it a problem above, but it really was an opportunity. Why not experiment and see what other games I might come up with? I decided to pilot three new overlays, one per trimester. That also meant that I could focus on one at a time.

And so, I set in on Trimester One’s overlay.  I started with a goal to have students read each other’s writing more often, and to view the pieces critically. I also wanted to try building more intrinsic reasons for students to complete their work, and that meant collaboration. It occurred to me that I could have the students work on teams. And this evolved into the Diddorol Olympics.

But how to transition within the greater game’s story arc?  In the storyline the prior year, King Law had resigned as ruler of Diddorol to become a private reading tutor. In his stead, Queen Justine was put in charge. After a year of stressful complications, it only made sense that a benevolent dictator would seek to provide a spell of respite to the denizens.

After this, I contemplated what the rules might be.  Thinking about what problems might occur, what imbalances might exist for different students of differing abilities, I created special [virtual] equipment and mechanisms. Out of these considerations, the game’s structure emerged:

Kingdom of Diddorol

Kingdom of Diddorol

The Core

I don’t mean Common Core. I mean what’s important in teaching writing: The Six Traits. As I did with the original game, I used the Six Traits as the foundation. It’s a natural, as it directly addresses the most important aspects of writing, and thus addresses all the most important standards–Common or otherwise. My school adopted the traits several years ago, so my 7th and 8th graders have had at least a few years of experience with them, but we still take a few days at the beginning of the year to review them and discuss how they’re used. I like to have kids assess sample pieces and see how close they come to my assessments.

The Basics

In each class (I have five, of about 20-25 students each), there would be two teams. Each week, I would announce an open topic (e.g., love, pain, ambition), and each student would be expected to write a piece that somehow tied into that topic. The writings would be assessed on two of the Six Traits, which would be announced with the topic. At the end of the week, team members would share their writing with one another, and choose a paper from all that were written to send to a weekly competition. A presenter would be chosen by the team, who would then read the chosen piece, and I would orally assess each piece, referring to the rubrics posted around the room.

Topic Choice + Two Traits

Topic Choice + Two Traits

The Complications

When you think about it, most game rules are complications. They turn what might be a chore in other circumstances into something fun. The basic are fine, but how to spice it up?

First, the two teams could have slightly different objectives…. I thought about how I might achieve this fairly, and decided on a simple twist: Fiction vs. Non-fiction. For the first half of the trimester, one team would write about the imagined while the other focused on what’s real. At half-time, they’d swap sides.  Doing this would accomplish a couple other goals I thought worthy: Help the students to see how the Six Traits apply to either category of writing, and improve the odds of students writing non-fiction more often.

Next, I wanted to find strategies to encourage participation. My game overlays use an accumulated experience point (XP) system for assessment:

0 XP   = start point

225     = a passing grade (D-)

300     = D

600     = C

900     = B

1400    = A

1800 XP is required to get an A+.

But for this game I needed a secondary counter for team success. Olympics points (OP) were created. I would offer XP based on the team’s success to those students who did the expected work, and the total XP (experience points) earned would be based on OP (Olympics points).

Here’s how it would work:

  •  The team gets 1 OP for each paper turned in. (Since teams were about 12 students in size, this would be about 12 OP.)
  • Students in my class sit at tables. (There are six, one table for each of the traits.) I call these groupings “guilds”; there would be 3 guilds per team. The team would get 5 bonus OP for each of its guilds that had a 100% turn in rate.
  • Papers that were shared would earn OP based on the trait score. I chose a multiplier of 2 to increase the total OP possible. If one week the traits being assessed were Ideas and Organization, and a paper earned 6s on both rubrics, then that would score 24 OP.

Student Brainstorming

  • To encourage students to choose different authors’ papers each week, instead of relying on one adept student, a bonus of 3 OC would be added if the paper a team selected was by someone who never had a paper selected before. (Varying which traits would be assessed also helped to allow students with different strengths to have a chance to shine.)
  • I knew I’d want to throw in some “game stuff” that could influence the team’s total OP. What do athletes make use of to enhance their scores? I created tickets (symbolizing crowds to cheer the athletes on), virtual foods, training and team equipment, trainers, etc. Some of these elements gave a specific number of OP, some deducted OP from the opposing team, and some added increases by a set percentage. Some of these could be purchased using a form of Kingdom currency, “Explorer Credits,” and others would be given as rewards for participation in class, success in accumulating XP, etc.

Here is the scoring form I used for each competition:

Score Form

Day One might forgo the minilesson or activity. Instead, I’d use that time to introduce the week’s writing topic, as well as reveal which two traits would be assessed. Usually the Kingdom News would include a summary of the prior week’s events, and discuss the teams’ overall standings in the trimester-long competition:

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Cumulative Form for Tracking Team Progress

Day Four was taken up with the competition. At my school, we have a rotating block schedule, and I see each of my five classes four times over the course of an ordinary week. Every day but Day Four would generally include the usual ELA class elements: vocabulary work, a minilesson and/or assessment, and perhaps a brief activity before a “work session” which usually was about 20 minutes.

Another Topic Choice

Another Topic Choice

The Schedule

In short, what all these rules boil down to: If students do their writing on a given week, they get XP. If their tablemates all do their writing, they get more—an incentive to keep each other on task. If their entire team does all their writing, they get more still. And the better the quality of the piece they choose to share, the more XP they each get.

You’ll note that I gave a nominal amount of XP to the student who read the paper aloud, and that the final XP released would be the OP earned plus a bonus: The winning team gets OP + 15 XP, and the second place team gets OP + 5. In this way, points could be earned not only by doing well, but also through participation–for example, reading aloud.

I would “check-in” contestants’ papers, using a special hole-punch to mark them as received, and noting each guilds’ level of completion. I’d call for stadium tickets.

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Diddorol Admission Ticket

Each guild would read the papers their members wrote and choose what they thought was the strongest contender, and then teammates would convene to choose the best of the three finalists. Each team would have a turn, in which the student-selected “best” would be read, and I would assess each orally (and make note of the scores onto the sheet) after hearing each.

This process just about always filled the block. If it ran short, I might fill in with a minilesson or announce the next week’s topic & traits early, and move the kids into a work session.

As detailed as all this is, I have glossed over certain elements of the game, but this gives you a sense of how the Olympics work. All in all, the design took perhaps 16 hours, spread out over a few days.

Variations

The Olympics returned in the first trimester of this school year with only minor changes. The biggest change was in the “fiction vs. non-fiction” element. I wondered if the game would work without any such restriction, and so I removed it to find out. As I guessed, most of the students chose to write fiction for the competitions. I compensated for the non-fiction Olympic deficiency by making most of the optional “quests”—specific assignments that students can take on to earn extra XP—non-fictional. This worked well for the higher achievers, but for the students who struggle getting work done, it reduced their non-fiction output. I would restore the game to the original rule next time.The second trimester of this school year, I tried a variation I called the Triathlon. It required the teams to

  1. choose a multigenre topic,
  2. research it,
  3. write about that topic in three different ways—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—over six weeks (thus “Triathlon”), and then
  4. create a website that shared the best of their writings.

This was specifically done in an effort to target as many of the new Common Core standards as possible. The results were mixed; although the final products were in most cases impressive. To see samples of student work, go to the following example site: http://grimsvotnteam.weebly.com/

More Topic Choices

More Topic Choices

Some Conclusions

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: You

If you do try something, don’t be afraid to tell the students straight out that you are piloting something new, and ask them for advice. Some of the best tweaks to my games’ rules have come from students—after all, many of them ARE gamers, and this is their turf!

And don’t think you need a thorough understanding of game theory to create a more complex game. Think of the games that you’ve played, and borrow ideas and rules from them. I am not much of a gamer, myself, but my passing acquaintance with classic text-based computer games like Zork and the online Kingdom of Loathing [link: www.kingdomofloathing.com] have given me scores of ideas.

Is gamifying right for you? If your gut reaction is intrigue, then it may be. You don’t have to do anything as complex as I. Start small. You could create a simple game-based unit that runs for a week or two. It doesn’t have to be deeply rooted in a mythological storyline, and it doesn’t have to make use of metaphor and symbolism. After all–tic tac toe is a game, and its rules are simple, it has no deeper meaning, and there’s certainly no plot. Try doing a unit with cumulative points instead of averaged points. Try having a list of possible assignments instead of a single one that everyone must do.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball: Me

My district’s and school’s administration, I suspect influenced by the demand of the Common Core and its affiliated Smarter Balanced Testing demands, decided to eliminate multiage from my school. Next year I will teach just 8th grade, and the 7th graders I currently have will be the last to have two years in the Kingdom.

Although the change means that I could focus upon a single game overlay and reuse it year after year, I doubt that will be my choice. The range of possibilities is too broad and too exciting to stagnate in a single game. I wonder what a sci-fi themed game might be like, or a steampunk world of gadgets. Right now, I’m piloting a game called Explorers, in which the students are mapping out a new and mysterious land mass called Dirgel; each new location they discover reveals a new lesson or writing prompt or assignment. The kids seem to be loving it, but it’s radically different than anything I’ve tried before, and I’m having to make rule changes and adjustments constantly.

Such is the world of gaming and teaching; there’s an addictive aspect to it for both students and teacher. It is harder, it is more time-consuming, and it is more demanding…but it’s so much more fun, too!

 

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

Larry Graykin and students in the Kingdom of Diddorol

 

Larry Graykin, M.Ed., teaches English language arts at Barrington Middle School in Barrington, New Hampshire. He maintains several ed-related sites, including commoncorecriticisms.wikispaces.com (a compilation of links to articles and videos critical of deleterious educational reforms) and attitudematters.wikispaces.com (about the importance of kindness). You can find him on Twitter at @L_Graykin. Recently, Barry Lane suggested he write a book about Diddorol and classroom game overlays; it is hard to say no to one’s friend, mentor, and guru…. Visitors are always welcome in Diddorol! To arrange a visit, email: LGraykin@sau74.org

Or visit virtually, online at www.diddorol.com.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Note: Videos showing the magic of Diddorol are available, and we look forward to providing a link, pending permission from the participating students.

Next time on Gurus, I’ll be writing about my adventures down under–specifically, how writers choose writing worthy moments, especially when they have many to choose from. Meantime, thank you, as always for stopping by. Please come often and bring friends. We appreciate your company!

Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

 

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Last Stop on Market Street. 2015. Written by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Unpaginated.

Genre: Picture book

Ages: Grades K-2 (and up)

 

Summary

CJ and his grandma have a routine they follow each Sunday after church—they ride the city bus all the way to the last stop on Market Street. On this particular Sunday, CJ’s not too thrilled about making the journey, and he doesn’t keep his lack of enthusiasm to himself. His unhappiness comes out in a string of questions for his grandma—Why do we have to wait for the bus in the rain? Why don’t we have a car? Why do we have to go to the same place every Sunday? Why don’t any of my friends have to go? Of course, there are many more questions, and none of them faze grandma or her sunny disposition in the least. She’s ready and knows just how to answer to help work CJ out of his funk. By the time they reach “the last stop on Market Street,” and walk to the shelter where they volunteer, CJ is looking at his world, urban warts and all, through a different lens and is more than glad that he made the trip.

In the Classroom

  1. Reading. As we always suggest, it’s best to read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it with students. I also like to read a book like this out loud, so I can hear how it sounds as I voice each character. It’s good to remind myself that I’m modeling expressive reading for my students. When a book is as well written as this one, it’s easy to find and stay in step with the natural rhythm of the words. I’ll mention it again later, but the active verbs energizing each sentence help make it even easier to read. If verbs are the engine of every sentence, then Matt de la Peña is a first-class writing mechanic. His verb choice has each sentence running smoothly, from the opener to the wrap-up.

You’ll want to use a document camera to help students zoom in on Christian Robinson’s vibrant illustrations—a blend of paper cutouts and paint—to help young readers see and feel each part of CJ’s journey. I particularly like the way he makes each passenger on the bus an individual character—and not just background—with the inclusion of one or two distinct details.

  1. Background. The world of CJ and his Nana is urban—neighborhoods with trees, brownstone houses/apartments, sidewalk vendors, city-buses, city-traffic, graffiti tags, and abandoned buildings. Their bus trip clearly takes them from their familiar residential neighborhood surrounding their church through the city to a part of town where CJ feels the need to hold Nana’s hand. Again, she’s not fazed at all by the change in scenery. She’s smiling all the way to their destination—a soup kitchen where she and CJ help serve the needy patrons. If your students live in a more suburban, small town, or rural environment, much of the bus ride from church to the end of Market Street will need to be discussed/previewed and compared to where they live. Sharing suggestion: Using a document camera/projected images from your computer, share and discuss some images of city life—busy streets, tall buildings, public transportation—buses, light rail, etc., to help students connect to CJ’s world.Discuss with students how they get to school and around town. Many of your students may ride buses to school, but they may not have experienced public transportation like CJ and Nana. You may also want/need to familiarize students with some information about soup kitchens/shelters that provide meals and services to people in need. Some of your students may have participated in clothing/food drives or helped to feed the hungry. This may be a sensitive/personal topic for some of your students whose families are in need. You know your students best.

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  1. Organization/Word Choice.It’s easy to overlook the endpapers of books. As a reader, the excitement of getting into the story and illustrations can make it easy to flip right past the inside covering, flip over the title page, and jump right into the reason you grabbed the book in the first place. While it’s true that many books may use a plain colored paper, this book has used white images (on a golden yellow background) of 12 items clipped from the book’s illustrations, repeated like a wallpaper pattern. Take a picture (or photocopy) of the end paper. Depending on your class size, you may only need one or two copies. Cut out the images and distribute one—make sure that there will be more than one student holding the same image. Ask each student, one at a time, to hold up and name/describe the object in their image—e.g., umbrella, bird flying, guitar, etc.—to make sure they know what they’re holding. As you read the story, ask students to look closely to find their image as you show each page of illustrations. When they see their image, hold it up and, when invited, bring it up to the front white board or chart paper. On one section of the board/chart paper, attach one of the images. With the students’ help, name it and write its name underneath. This group of labeled images will become a collection of words for students to use (like a word wall) in their own writing. Attach the other copy of the same image to the board/chart paper to create an organizational timeline, sequencing each image from beginning to end. When you have used all the images, see if any students think they tell the story using the timeline as a reminder.

You could also use the process of naming the images as a way to make predictions in advance of readingWhat is the setting? Ideas about characters? How are the images connected? What do you think will happen?

  1. Central Topic/Theme/Message.What is the central message of the book? Why do you think author Matt de la Peña felt it was important to tell CJ and his grandma’s story? (Be sure to point out that both the author and illustrator mention grandmothers on the dedication page. Don’t forget to share the author and illustrator’s bios. Christian Robinson mentions that he “grew up riding the bus with his nana—just like CJ.”)
  2. Details. Use the image timeline your students created to emphasize that they represent key details in the story—if the author had omitted any of them the purpose, direction, and outcome of the story is affected. Leaving out some of them—the bus, guitar, dog, etc., makes it impossible to tell the story. Ask your students to retell the story without the bus ride. Talk about all the big and little changes to the story.Character details—I mentioned earlier that the illustrator, Christian Robinson, is able to create clear individuals—CJ, Nana, bus passengers, people at the shelter—by including one or two distinctive details for each character. Show your students the illustrations of the bus passengers (or the shelter patrons). Have them name each passenger’s distinguishing details—clothing items/colors, hair, accessories, etc., while you record their ideas. I think they might even have fun giving each person a name. You could even take it one step beyond and have them create back-stories for them or ideas about each passenger’s plan for the day/destination.
  1. Character details—I mentioned earlier that the illustrator, Christian Robinson, is able to create clear individuals—CJ, Nana, bus passengers, people at the shelter—by including one or two distinctive details for each character. Show your students the illustrations of the bus passengers (or the shelter patrons). Have them name each passenger’s distinguishing details—clothing items/colors, hair, accessories, etc., while you record their ideas. I think they might even have fun giving each person a name. You could even take it one step beyond and have them create back-stories for them or ideas about each passenger’s plan for the day/destination.
  1. Reading for meaning.At one point in the book, the narrator says, “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain…” What does he mean by this? What if he had said that the air smelled like danger? the air smelled like Monday? the air smelled like Saturday morning? (Note:Young students may struggle a bit with this, but many will enjoy the challenge of a discussion with philosophical depth. They may surprise you—as I’m sure you’re surprised every day—with their understanding.) This discussion also opens the door to the use, meaning, and purpose of similes in writing and speaking. This kind of comparison, I believe comes naturally to students, especially in conversation. I think it’s important to help students recognize figurative language, name it, look and listen for examples during reading and speaking, and then use it with purpose in their own writing.
  1. Word choice–Verbs. Earlier, I suggested that verbs are the engine of every sentence. Matt de la Peña expresses direct, visible action with every verb choice. As CJ left church in the book’s first sentence, he “…pushed through the church doors, skipped down the steps.” On the second page, the rain “…freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.” Strong choices like these need to highlighted for student writers and readers. I like to have young students physically act out verbs—to really feel the action or draw pictures of the verbs acting on the objects. What if CJ “went through the church doors,” or the rain “got on CJ’s shirt.”? What happens when students try to act out or draw these actions? What happens to readers’ involvement in the story when verbs are flat and passive? What happens to the writer’s big idea?
  1. Writing opportunities.Ideas for writing jumped out at me from every page of this book. I’m going to list several suggestions but leave it up to you to shape them to the interests and needs of your students. Depending on the ages of your students, these suggestions could be done as individual or group writing.
  • CJ and his Nana have their Sunday routine. Discuss the concept of routine with your students. What routines do they follow (besides going to school)? What is their Saturday/Sunday/weekend routine?
  • What experience do your students have with public transportation—buses, subway, light rail, etc.? Describe a person you have seen while riding public transportation. Does your city have public transportation? Research the different modes of transportation a city/town might have. In your opinion, are CJ and his Nana smart to not own a car?
  • Compare (through experience or research) the differences in city/urban living with life in a smaller town or rural area. After researching this topic, write an opinion piece arguing for/against city versus country/small town living.
  • Research the training of service/guide dogs. Which breeds of dogs are easiest to train for these purposes? What kinds of services are these dogs trained to perform?
  • Write about an experience with a grandparent or older relative/close friend. What can you learn from senior citizens?
  • Write about an experience when you volunteered to help a friend, family member, or neighbor. Have you ever helped out, like CJ, at a church or shelter?
  • Poetry—Read Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem called “Rain.”

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

Write a poem or personal experience story about being out in the rain. What’s fun about             the rain?  What’s not so fun about rain?

  • Closing his eyes and listening to the man play his guitar helps CJ change his mood. What do you do to put yourself in a brighter mood?
  • What kind of music do you listen to? Try to describe/explain why you like listening or playing music. How do different kinds of music make you feel? If possible, collaborate with your music teacher for some help with this. Listening and moving to different types of music is a natural way to help conceptualize voice (human presence, sense of the individual in writing) for younger students.
  • CJ’s Nana tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt…you’re a better witness to what’s beautiful.” What do you think she is trying to tell him? What do you think is “beautiful” in your life?
  1. Conventions–dialogue. In number 6 above, I suggested having students name and create back-stories for the bus passengers or shelter patrons. Asking students to create dialogue between these newly-brought-to-life characters, is a great way to introduce and practice the conventions writers use when their characters converse. Rather than just tell your students about using quotation marks and commas, I suggest using your document camera to zoom in on a few examples of dialogue from the book. What do your students notice when CJ or his Nana are talking? What happens to your voice when you read the parts inside the quotations? What might happen to readers if writers forget to give them the appropriate clues/cues? 
  1. More titles. Here are a few (and just a few) more titles of books you and your students might want to explore, especially if you and your students do not live in an urban area. (You probable have several titles you could add to these examples.)

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One Monday Morning. 1967. Written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

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Something Beautiful. 1998. Written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. New York: Doubleday.

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The Snowy Day. 1962. Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. New York: Penguin. Winner of the Caldecott Medal-1963.

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The Gardener. 1997. Written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

 

For more on the picture books and YA novels from author, Matt de la Peña, visit:

www.mattdelapena.com

For more about the wonderful art of illustrator, Christian Robinson, visit:

www.theartoffun.com

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next up–some reflections on and reactions to Thomas Newkirk’s extremely thought provoking, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Every page makes me think! Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Bridging the Gap

A review by Vicki Spandel

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

Genre: Teacher Resource

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Memoir: What is it?

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

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

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

Building Bridges

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

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

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

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

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

Practicality—and Process

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

Robt Smalls 8th Graders

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

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

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

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

Thoughtful Organization

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

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

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

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

Skill Building

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling Across the Curriculum

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

Link to Common Core

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

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

Read on your own? Or in a study group?

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

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

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

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

Coming up on Gurus . . .

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

 

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Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks

Welcome back!

In this post and the last (and the next!), we’re looking for ways to make writing instruction related to the Common Core Standards manageable. One way to do that is by focusing on essential writing features common to all three CCSS umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. In Part 1, we considered four features:

  • Purpose and audience
  • Detail
  • Leads
  • Structure

In Part 2 (this week), we’ll look at Features 6 and 7:

  • Transitions
  • Wording

And in Part 3 (coming up right after Thanksgiving), we’ll review the final two:

  • Conclusions
  • Conventions (and Presentation)

 

A Reminder

As a reminder, please read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. Now—on to transitions and wording (aka, word choice)!

 FEATURE 5: Transitions

A writer’s thinking is not always easy to follow. Transitions help. They form bridges between ideas, paragraphs, or chapters, orienting or alerting the reader, and guiding him/her from thought to thought to thought. Here are just a handful of things transitions can do—you and your students can no doubt think of many more:

  •  They can link periods of time: Later, In an hour, Momentarily, Just minutes before, The next day, Years later, At that moment, While we slept, As we watched, During the night, As the tide came in, During the Pleistocene Period . . .
  •  They can orient us spatially: On top of the bureau, Behind the door, Across the street, Just beyond the fence, At the back of the room, By my side, In the underbrush, Above her signature, Below the lake’s surface, Within her peripheral vision, On the other side of the world, Across the galaxy . . .

 

  •  Transitions can signal a reversal or contrast: However, Although, To everyone’s surprise, Unexpectedly, Surprisingly, In contrast, Despite all this, Shockingly enough, Unbelievably though, On the other hand, To look at things another way . . . 
  •  They can show cause and effect: Therefore, As a result, Because of this, Since this happened, For this reason, Consequently . . .
  •  They can set up an example or quotation: To illustrate, For example, As one person put it, To see how this works, In one instance, Repeatedly, In the words of one expert, As research now shows us, Results of the study suggest . . . 
  •  Transitions can also indicate support or emphasis: In fact, In addition, Besides, Indeed, Moreover, Furthermore, As everyone predicted, What’s more, To no one’s surprise, Unquestionably . . .

As the preceding examples show, transitions are not always single words—though they’re often depicted that way on lists. In fact, transitions can be multi-word expressions, whole sentences—even paragraphs.

Boy

One of my favorite paragraph-long transitions is the ending to the fourth chapter in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography, Boy. We’ve just been introduced to Mrs. Pratchett, proprietress of the candy shop, “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry” (1984, 33). After just two pages, we not only know her; we despise her. How can we help it? She dishes up fudge by digging into it with her blackened fingernails. So we’re not surprised by this end-of-chapter confession—which is a masterful transition into the chapter that follows:

So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.

The perfect bridge between before and after, this brilliant transition sums up how the children feel, and offers us a hint of what’s to come. The mouse is a tease, like a quick peek at the weapon in a murder mystery, and it’s delightful that the words “dead mouse” come at the very end of the paragraph. We’re humming along, reading about schemes that don’t work, and bam, the writer drops a dead mouse right onto the page in front of our noses. Perfect. Dahl doesn’t tell us what he and his friends planned to do with the mouse because that would kill the suspense. We can imagine, of course. And to find out if we’re right, we must read on.

 

Having a conversation. Transitions can be taught in a very mechanical way, as if each and every sentence should open with a transitional word, phrase, or clause. This results in extremely unnatural writing, as illustrated by this example from an eighth grade writing assessment:

My best friend is John. The reason he’s my best friend is because he’s good company. Another reason is that he’s nice to me all the time. Also, we’ve known each other for more than two years. Secondly, my parents enjoy having him at our house. Even more, we look alike. Next, we have many things in common. Another thing—we get along. Also we like the same girls. Secondly, many girls like us, too . . .

There’s more—but you get the idea. Sometimes transitions are essential, but this writer is building suspension bridges where stepping stones would do the trick.

A less formulaic way to think about transitions is that they help a writer have something approaching a conversation with the reader. If we were really having a conversation right now, chatting over coffee and biscotti, I would be watching your body language and facial expressions to see if you were following my train of thought—or if I needed to repeat, expand, or rephrase something. In writing we can’t do that, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to make the trail of our thinking as easy to follow as possible.

Zero

Consider the following explanation of how modern mathematics began with the simple concept of counting. It’s from Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife (2000, 6). I’ve underlined the transitional words to make them stand out—but you’d notice them anyway:

It’s difficult for a modern person to imagine a life without zero, just as it’s hard to imagine life without the number seven or the number 31. However, there was a time when there was no zero—just as there was no seven and 31. It was before the beginning of history, so paleontologists have had to piece together the tale of the birth of mathematics from bits of stone and bone. From these fragments, researchers discovered that Stone Age mathematicians were a bit more rugged than modern ones. Instead of blackboards, they used wolves.

(Wolves? More about this last line later.) To fully appreciate how much these transitions add to the writer-reader conversation, try reading the Seife passage aloud without them. Hear the difference? It still makes sense, but it’s jarring, abrupt, terse. Without transitions, we lose that sense that a thoughtful writer is leading us through the discussion—not forging ahead with the flashlight off.

Gaia Warriors

Fill in the blanks. One of the best ways to teach transitions is to ask students to fill in the blanks. Try it. I’ve left the transition out of the following sentence from Gaia Warriors, Nicola Davies’ nonfiction text on global warming (2011, 13). How would you begin this passage?

____ you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Was it obvious? Or did you need to think about it? Sometimes, there’s more than one possible sensible answer. But usually, there are many answers that would make no sense. This is why transitions matter. They point the reader in one direction, and if we change them, we point the reader somewhere else. For example, imagine this passage beginning with any of the following: Until, Because, Whenever, Although. All of these tamper with the meaning. Here’s the author’s original:

 Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.

Medusa and Snail

OK—that was just one word. For more of a challenge, try this one from Lewis Thomas’s essay “On Warts” (The Medusa and the Snail, 1995, 77). Warning—this transition is a multi-word phrase (not that you have to match Thomas exactly):

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, __________________ , they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

Maybe you’re thinking—hey, wouldn’t but or however or nevertheless work? Yes—they would. But those words wouldn’t direct our thinking as much as Thomas wants to. Here’s what he wrote:

The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

 

Connecting two sentences. Think how much we learn from Thomas’s few transitional words. Transitions aren’t throw-aways; they carry meaning. Here’s another exercise to try. Fill in any transitional word or phrase(s) you like to connect the following two thoughts:

Hank loved Irene. He wondered if she loved him back.

Here are a few possibilities—all slightly different in meaning:

  •  Oddly enough, Hank loved Irene, but often wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, but after finding the gun, wondered if she loved him back.
  • For a time, Hank loved Irene. During those few months, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, though it was hard. Every time he ate her pot roast, he wondered if she loved him back.
  • Hank loved Irene, even if she was a humble turtle. He wondered if she loved him back.
  • To the best of his ability, Hank loved Irene. In his own pitbull fashion, he wondered if she loved him back.

 

 

 TEACHING Transitions

Following are six things you can do to teach transitions to students:

  1.  Have a transitions treasure hunt. Ask students to find (and list, as a class) as many transitions as they can within a specified period—say, ten minutes. Look through textbooks, literature, business writing, ads (they’re FILLED with transitions), newspaper articles, your school’s publications, or any other sources. Mix it up. I guarantee that the resulting list will have a much more lasting impression than any pre-published list you can post.
  2. Talk about a few of the transitions on your list. Don’t go crazy. If you go through them all, one by one, you and your students will soon find transitions tedious. But if you pick out three or four of the most interesting, and ask, “What does this show? What sort of bridge is this?” you will help students understand the nature of transitions. Be sure you ask students to read the sentence (or paragraph) from which they pulled the example. This helps put things into context.
  3. Look for extended transitions. The transitions at the ends of paragraphs aren’t always brilliant or even noteworthy. But sometimes they are. Sometimes, that final sentence guides us right into the next paragraph. So check for those end-of-paragraph guiding sentences. (For a perfect example, re-read the Seife paragraph on counting that ends with the sentence Instead of blackboards, they used wolves. Wouldn’t you like to know why? or how? Gotta read that next paragraph!) Good authors also know that there’s no handier time to stop reading than when one finishes a chapter. Only really strong transitions (like Roald Dahl’s reference to the dead mouse) can keep us turning pages when we feel like stretching or reaching for a chocolate.
  4. Play the missing transitions game. Keep it simple. You might choose an example with only one transition missing. Here’s an easy one from the chapter on Mrs. Pratchett—there’s only one missing word. What would make sense here? “Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg-yolk. It was her hands, ______, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime.” Remember, the question is NOT What did Dahl write? But rather, What makes sense? What builds the bridge? Hint: It’s one of the following: therefore, however, in conclusion, delightfully enough, for example. If you said however, you heard the contrast. That’s the bridge. Would your students hear it?
  5. Don’t forget to comment. When one of your students makes a clear, definite connection, one that changes the meaning of a sentence or helps you easily make the leap to the next paragraph or section, say something like this: Thanks for helping me make that connection! This makes an impression, and is infinitely more powerful than the more familiar negative comment—How on earth did you get to this point? Where’s your transition?
  6. Find another way to say it. For many students, the word transition has a kind of technical sound that dehumanizes it. Try connection, connecting words, bridge, link—or something similar. Once students understand how transitions work, they’ll appreciate them more in their reading, and using them in writing will come naturally.

 

On Writing Well 

FEATURE 6: Wording

Overview. “Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” So said William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (2006, 34). I love this bit of advice, but admittedly, we might have to modify it for the CCSS, perhaps amending it to read this way: The race in writing is not to the swift but to the clear and precise. (Note: For a full picture of what the CCSS demand with respect to word choice, be sure to check not only writing standards per se, but language arts standards as well.)

With respect to word choice, the standards emphasize such things as the following:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Appropriate use of relevant terminology
  • Use of words that link ideas (covered under transitions)
  • Comfort with figurative language, such as metaphors or similes
  • Use of descriptive language or sensory detail (in narrative)

Language can be formal or informal, and as with all writing features, needs to change to suit the occasion. We don’t wear tuxedos to the beach or flip-flops to the wedding. Sometimes it shifts within a single sentence, as in this line from the Introduction to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times (2005): “The intensity of poetry, its imaginative fervor, its cadences, is not meant for the triumphant executive, but for people in a jam—you and me.” Keillor swings gracefully from lofty to humble, elegant to chatty, in a few keystrokes.

Keeping it measurable. Language can also be inspiring or provocative. It’s the key to voice. The right words can move us, touch our very souls, cause us to highlight passages or scribble quotations we tape to walls or send to friends. Such things are hard to measure. That doesn’t make them unimportant—quite the reverse. I mention this because the CCSS must, by definition, focus on the measurable. We need to keep this in mind because it’s easy to conclude that what does not appear in the CCSS is unimportant. The truth is, what does not appear may be vital—but difficult (or even impossible) to measure. We cannot very well have a standard that says “Students will write quotable prose.” Many will, of course—at some point—especially if we consistently share the literature that inspires us. But quotable prose is something to wish for, encourage, cherish, and invite. It is not something we can demand. I often wish the CCSS were subtitled “Some Important Stuff We Feel Confident We Can Measure.”

Clarity. Let’s begin with a functional (and pretty measurable) goal: clarity. In the simplest terms, clarity means that the text makes sense—and specifically, that the text makes sense to the intended reader. For example, a science writer would likely describe photosynthesis one way to a consortium of botanists and another way to a class of fourth graders. In other words, while clarity is certainly about word choice, it’s also about audience.

Following is an excerpt from an owner’s manual on boilers purchased to heat homes. Keep in mind that the audience is the lay user, not a technician or engineer:

To change the “normal room temperature”: Factory setting: 68 degrees F/20 degrees C from 06:00 to 22:00 hrs. The “normal room temperature” can be set between 37 and 99 degrees F/3 and 37 degrees C. Press 1, or 2, or 3 to select the desired heating circuit. Turn the selector knob; the temperature value appears in the display window. If this is not done, the following instruction appears in display: Select button 1-2 or button 1-3.

Will any of this be on the test? Seriously, I think they’re trying to tell me that the temperature is set at the factory for 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius. This temperature will hold from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. I can change it if I want to, however, re-setting it for anything from 37 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my personal need for warmth. I don’t know what the “desired heating circuit” is because this is not explained—but hopefully, it will become more evident after I push button 1, 2, or 3.

Here’s the deal, though: I have to read this passage slowly and more than once to squeeze even this much meaning out of it. That shouldn’t be. This is not written by an incompetent writer; it’s simply written by someone used to communicating with other technicians. This is important because a large number of our students will make a living that involves writing. They may not be writing poems or novels, but many will be writing reports, letters, PR documents, press releases, or technical manuals, just like this one. And those who can communicate clearly will be in high demand.

As the preceding example shows, clarity involves choosing the right words (sometimes non-technical words) and putting them together in a logical order that speaks to a targeted audience. So—right words, logical order, audience awareness. Is that enough? Not quite. There’s also much to be said for including all necessary information.

Clarity requires completeness. An entertaining little book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999, 57) contains some advice about what to do in a variety of situations—such as, if one is attacked by an alligator.

Point 1 says this: “If you are on land, try to get on the alligator’s back and put downward pressure on its neck.” Pardon? I know what the individual words mean—nothing technical here—but have to say I cannot picture myself (or any sane person) doing this. I need some context. Is this alligator at all large—say larger than a cat? Is anyone helping me? How does one mount an alligator—always on the left, as with a horse? In other words, I’m suggesting that clarity demands including all essential steps, not just the one where I turn into a stunt double.

Point 2 tells me to “Cover the alligator’s eyes.” Seriously? Not unless I can do it from 50 yards away. I can just see myself digging through my purse, saying, “Where the heck did I put that alligator bandana?” It seems to me that this writer, like the writer of the boiler manual, would benefit from a reality check titled “Know Your Audience.” To write clearly, we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place.

Cultivating Delight

Details, details. Notice the contrast in this “full picture” example from Diane Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, 14). Though the topic is almost equally bizarre, her cautionary advice makes perfect sense because she helps us understand the circumstances under which a frog might find itself in a human mouth:

Never hide a frog in your mouth. Never lick a toad. Never kiss a warty small green male, however princely. Disgust is an underrated strategy. Many toads exude a toxic slime that makes predators recoil. The poisons tend to be hallucinogens, which teenagers are often tempted to sample, so each year some die from toad-licking. Toads won’t give you warts, but they can kill you.

The difference between this and the tip on blindfolding alligators is that Ackerman gives us detail and background info. She answers our most pressing question, which is, Why on earth would someone lick a toad or frog? Because, dear reader, hallucinogens (though often lethal) are (for some, anyway) tempting as all get-out. The best example of good word choice here, though, is “underrated strategy.” Who knew disgust was a strategy, much less an underrated one? We humans haven’t figured out that disgust is nature’s way of tipping us off. Gives you renewed respect for your instincts: e.g., repulsive could mean dangerous.

crickwing

Precision. Clarity is also about using the just right word for the moment. Author Janell Cannon is known for her vivid, rich language and refusal to write down to children. In the picture book Crickwing (2000), she describes the capture of the artsy cockroach named Crickwing by a colony of ants: “He had no chance for escape as thousands of leafcutters swarmed over him, dragged him back to the anthill, and marched him down its dark, winding corridors.”

Brilliant. Not ants, but leafcutters. Very precise. They didn’t crawl over him; they swarmed. They didn’t pull him back; they dragged him. They didn’t take him down into the tunnel; they marched him into those dark, winding corridors.

We not only see the scene, but feel it, as if we were the ones being swarmed over, dragged, and marched to our doom. With its forceful parallel rhythm, the episode is meant to be horrific, and it is. Had she written, “The ants pulled Crickwing into their tunnel,” no one would be getting the chills—not even Crickwing.

pocket babies

Making meaning clear for the reader. Informational writing or argument often call for subject-specific terminology. The CCSS require that students not only use words appropriately and with understanding, but help readers understand them, as well. What does that look like? Here’s a clear explanation of the term speciation from Sneed Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, 11):

The marsupials that invaded South America, Antarctica, and Australia began evolving into many different species. Scientists call this process adaptive radiation or speciation. South America, for instance, gave rise to large marsupials that resembled bears and saber-toothed tigers. At a site called Riversleigh in Australia, scientists have unearthed an amazing variety of fossil marsupials, including nine-foot-tall kangaroos, marsupial lions, and ancestors of today’s koalas.

Note that Collard provides a simple definition for speciation, but also includes an example. This kind of attention to verbal detail makes his writing extremely easy to understand.

Animals in Translation

The expanded example. In her fascinating book Animals in Translation (2006), animal scientist Temple Grandin takes explanation a step further. First, she describes the concept of task analysis (a way of teaching handicapped students and sometimes animals) in these simple words: “If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way” (13). That’s easy enough to follow, but what I love is her expansion of the discussion:

Doing a task analysis isn’t as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren’t really aware of the very small separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt . . . If you’ve ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don’t really know how to do it, either—not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.

With this example, Grandin makes clear that word choice isn’t really about individual words (or synonyms) so much as it’s about concepts. (That’s why simply handing out vocabulary lists has only limited value.) Without the buttoning example, I would have only the most abstract and hard-to-recall sense of what task analysis is about. Now it’s a term I’ll remember forever—even though I don’t use it in my daily life. If you think about it, creating that kind of understanding is quite an achievement for a writer.

Figurative language. I want to pull one more example from Grandin to illustrate excellent use of metaphor. In this passage (214) on how the brain works, Grandin explains that simple, visceral fear happens in the amygdala—and very quickly. Analysis happens in the cortex, and takes longer. Only a few milliseconds longer, mind you—but in life or death circumstances, milliseconds count:

You’re walking down a path, you see something long, then, and dark in the path, and your amygdala screams, “It’s a snake!” Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, “It’s definitely a snake!” or, “It’s just a stick.” That doesn’t sound like very much time, but it makes all the difference in the world to whether you get bitten by that snake or not, assuming it is a snake and not a stick. The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.

The “rough draft of reality” is the perfect metaphor for helping me understand the nature of fast fear.

The CCSS require students to understand—and occasionally use—figures of speech. Why does this matter? Because metaphors, similes, or analogies take the unfamiliar and make it familiar by linking it to what readers already know. This strategy, though powerful, does not necessarily come naturally to students. That’s because they’re normally writing to us, their teachers, and believe we already know more about the subject (no matter what it is) than they do. This isn’t always true, naturally, but they write as if it were—as if they were teaching baking to Martha Stewart and dropping a few specifics could hardly matter less. This is a limiting perspective from which to write because it lets the writer off the hook when it comes to details or explanations. The writer-as-teacher, by contrast, has a distinct edge. When students write as if they were experts with something important and fascinating to share, as if every detail would make a difference to our understanding, their writing improves markedly.

The Winter Room

Descriptive/sensory language. Descriptive or sensory language enhances both setting and character development in narrative writing (For much more on this, see the section on Detail in the previous post.)

I cannot imagine a better introduction to sensory language than the Preface to Gary Paulsen’s The Winter Room. It only runs a couple of pages, but within this short space, Gary transports us to the farm of his childhood, alive with the sensory details that linger in his memory—notably sounds and smells. Because of copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the whole piece here, much as I would love to. But look it up. You’ll be so glad you did. When you talk with your students about sensory detail or descriptive language, consider using this piece (1989, 1-3) to kick off your discussion. Don’t be surprised if many students want to write (almost immediately) about places memorable for them. (It’s stunning what memories are unleashed just by the smells of popcorn, pine, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate.) Here’s just a fragment from Paulsen’s Preface:

If books could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells . . . . It would have the smells of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn . . . This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop . . .

Books, Paulsen tells us, cannot by themselves have sounds, smells, and all the rest—because they need readers. “The book needs you” (3). Yes, books do need readers. Yes, it is a dance. But the words are the music.

The Animal Dialogues

Descriptive detail in informational writing. Does descriptive detail have a place in informational writing? Absolutely. Think how dull informational writing would be, what an absolute nightmare it would be to pay attention, if it were all charts, graphs, and statistics. Human readers need stories, examples, and images to hold onto. Otherwise, we can’t put all that information in its place—and what is more, we aren’t very compelled to do so. The abstract is only interesting when we have specific cases to which we can apply what we learn.

In The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs teaches us about the brains of mosquitoes (2007, 283), first laying the groundwork with some factual information:

Of any creature this size, the mosquito has the most complex mechanical wiring known. Fifteen thousand sensory neurons reside in the antennae region alone. The sensory organs of the head are arranged like clockwork. Electron-microscope examination reveals interconnected rods and chambers, pleated dishes and prongs and plates . . . These take the mechanical and chemical environment and translate it into a tactical array of electrical impulses to the mosquito’s brain, a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.

If you’re anything like me as a reader, your imagination clings to that final explicit detail—“a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.” The rest I sum up this way in my head: mosquito brain = “complex” and “structurally organized” and “highly sensitive.” I probably won’t recall the part about the fifteen thousand sensory neurons, even though it impressed me at the time. But I’ll always recall this next paragraph, the descriptive part:

If a mosquito is released in still air, it will come directly to you even if you are standing one hundred feet away. Through the air, the mosquito senses the carbon dioxide of your breath, lactic acid from your skin, traces of acids emitted by skin bacteria, and the humidity and heat of your body. If there is a slight breeze, a mosquito may be able to locate you across the length of a football field . . . . Some people stink more than others. The degree of the stink, subtleties we may never comprehend with our noses, is like a field of wildflowers to a mosquito. (283, 287)

You feel them coming for you, don’t you? Those sensory neurons are important—but in the end, it’s the futility of escape I cannot stop thinking about. I’m trying not to sweat. And by the way, how long does it take to run the length of a football field?

 

TEACHING Word Choice

Here are seven things you can do to teach word choice.

  1. Read. It’s still the best strategy. Students need to read on their own—of course. But they need to be read to as well, even older students. You don’t have to read a 300-page book. Pick an excerpt, about the length of the ones I’ve chosen here. Quality and variety matter far more than length. Read aloud as often as you can—more than once a day, if possible. Read what you love so the passion comes through. The standards don’t call for students to love language, but without this, the rest doesn’t really matter.
  2. Encourage students to hunt up favorite passages. They can read them aloud to partners or in small groups or to the whole class. Or post quotations for everyone to read.
  3. Don’t shy away from picture books. Secondary teachers often think their students have outgrown picture books. This is interesting to me since picture books have an enormous adult audience. I buy them for friends all the time and so far no one has said, “Thanks, but I think I’m too old for this.” Maybe that’s because picture books are not what they used to be in the good old days of Dick, Jane, Spot, and Puff. On the contrary, picture book writing is arguably the most demanding genre. And in addition, many picture books today are written specifically with an adult audience in mind. The advantages of using picture books instructionally are many, but here are just two: (1) They’re short enough to share within a single class period, and (2) They hold students’ attention. I have found this to be true even with middle and high school students.
  4. Fill in the blanks. Take any passage you feel is especially well written, omit a few words or substitute something more banal, and ask students to fill in the blanks with their own versions. Here’s a short passage from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (2000, 272), detailing the famous match race between the small but gutsy thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the legendary War Admiral. It’s a tight race at this point, and Hillenbrand wants to use verbs that will capture the intensity. What would you put in the six blanks I’ve filled with something flat and ordinary? You don’t have to match Hillenbrand. Just make it sing! (I’ll give you the original at the end of this section.)

The horses WENT out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They MOVED shoulders and hips, heads GOING up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and MOVING in unison. The poles WENT by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and FELL behind.

  1. Focus on verbs. The CCSS do not make a big deal of verbs—but in my view, this is a serious oversight. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be captivatingly powerful if they’re uncommon and selected with surgical care—if we’re finicky, as Zinsser puts it. But for sheer, raw energy, nothing beats the verb, as Diane Ackerman illustrates here: “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern . . . The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” (A History of the Senses, 1990, xvii). I love picturing my senses tearing reality apart and feeding shards of info to my brain. That makes me feel alive—much more so than “making sense” of the world.
  2. Explore nuance. The thesaurus can be your friend or arch enemy. The secret lies in knowing precisely what you want to say. Words like smart, intelligent, mindful, savvy, clever, and cunning are related, but not interchangeable. Discuss groups of words like these, asking students to distinguish among them by using synonyms, explanations, and examples.
  3. Model. Create a business letter, short informational passage, or description as students look on. Pause one, two, or three times to ask for help finding the right word to express an idea. Talk about how words affect tone (voice) as well as meaning. If you’re agreeing to a job interview, for example, what’s the difference between saying “I’m dying to meet you!” and “I look forward to our meeting”?

What did she really write? Here’s Hillenbrand’s original passage. I’ve underlined the missing words so you can spot them easily. Notice she does not repeat—and she does not use first-word-that-came-to-me verbs like went or moved. As you compare what you (or your students) wrote, please remember that matching is not important. What counts is coming up with words that are striking, meaningful, original, and fitting (272):

The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.

Seabiscuit

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Right after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll present Part 3 of our look at the Core of the Common Core. In December, I’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative; and in early January, we’ll look at Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills—and make important links to the six traits. You won’t want to miss either one. Meantime, Jeff and I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings.

Thank you for coming. Please come often, and recommend our site to friends. And . . . to book your own personalized writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

 Resources

For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding post, please check out the following resources:

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

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

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

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

 

We’re BACK!

Burntside15
That’s right! Our summer hiatus is coming to an end, and Gurus kicks off the 2014/2015 school year with a brand new post THURSDAY, August 21. We’ll suggest 6 POWERFUL THINGS YOU CAN DO ON DAY 1 of your writing class. Please check us out!

Meantime, our sincere thanks to all the loyal fans who continued visiting us over the summer, catching up on earlier posts they missed. Thanks also to the many people who joined our following and signed up to get notices each time we published. We appreciate each and every one of you!

We hope you had a good summer break, and we look forward to seeing you tomorrow.
Sincerely,
Jeff & Vicki

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A Splash of Red

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. 2013. Written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Unpaginated.

Genre: Picture book, biography, nonfiction

Ages: Grades 2 and up

Awards: Caldecott Honor Book, Schneider Family Book Award, Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding nonfiction for children

Summary

“Make a picture for us, Horace!” From the time he was a small child, Horace Pippin (1888-1946) heard this request everywhere he went—at home, in school, on the job, and later on the battlefields of France in World War I. He had talent to be sure—but he also had vision. Horace seemed to carry pictures of all he had seen in his head, and he had an incredible ability to translate those pictures into sketches and paintings. In words and art, this delightful picture book tells the story of a young man compelled to capture his experience on paper. He summoned details through imagination and memory, then simply “told his heart to go ahead.”

It took years for Horace to become famous, but ultimately, his work graced galleries and museums (where it can be seen to this day), and was purchased by collectors and movie stars. He has been called a folk artist and a primitive artist, and it is easy to understand why; his work is deceptively simple in its lines and choice of colors. Yet it also has a mysterious quality that is remarkably difficult to replicate. In a time when art is often seen as superfluous, a likely target for school district budget cuts, it is heartening to read the story of a person who relentlessly followed his dreams of self-expression and who never gave up, even when fulfilling those dreams became next to impossible. Jen Bryant captures Horace’s moving tale in simple language suitable for even young readers. Melissa Sweet’s distinctively homey art reflects the history of love and challenge that produced a great American artist. Let your young readers and writers see just how captivating nonfiction can be. This is a book that invites and merits multiple readings. It is an artistic masterpiece in its own right.

 

In the Classroom

1. Reading. Read the book more than once to yourself prior to sharing it aloud. The seemingly simple tale has in fact numerous details that help reveal a very strong and interesting character. As you’ll soon discover for yourself, Horace Pippin is one determined fellow! You’ll also want to take note of the “splash of red” in each of Melissa Sweet’s own illustrations. Her style pays homage to the original artist.

2. Background. Art is no longer the common part of school curriculum that it once was. If your school is fortunate enough to have an art program, you might want to let students know that this is not the case everywhere. Do they have a favorite artist? How many have been to an art museum or gallery? Why is art important in our lives? Why do we value it, collect it, admire it—or produce it ourselves? Sharing suggestion: Using a document projector, share some works by famous artists of our time or throughout history. Ask students to comment on various pieces, perhaps to choose a favorite. Writing suggestion: Students may enjoy writing poetry or commentary suggested by a piece of art that speaks to them. You can model this by choosing a favorite piece of your own and writing a poem based simply on words or expressions that occur to you as you view that piece. As an alternative, imagine yourself a figure inside a painting—a dancer, for example. Imagine yourself living the scene you see depicted in the art, and write what you are thinking. Then let students try this.

3. Personal Connection. How many of your students think of themselves as artists? Do any of them draw or paint—or build things? Some may express themselves in other forms, such as drama or dance. Talk about the value of art from a personal perspective. What benefits do we gain from having art as a way of expressing ourselves?

4. Opinion writing. Though art is not commonly taught in schools these days, should it be? Talk about this, and perhaps generate a list of pros and cons, including the cost of having an art program and the need to take time from other subjects versus the advantages of introducing students to numerous artists and art forms. Then ask students to write an opinion piece taking one side or the other and defending their position with reasons based on your discussion or their own thinking.

 5. Central Topic/Theme. What is the central message of the book? Why do you think author Jen Bryant felt it was important to tell Horace’s story? What do we learn from this book?

 6. Details. Where did Horace get his ideas? How does his artistic process (letting pictures come into his mind, then painting what he sees) compare to a writer’s process?

7. Reading for meaning. At one point in the book, Horace says, “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for he must be true to himself . . .” What does he mean by this? (Note: Young students may struggle a bit with this, but many will enjoy the challenge of a discussion with philosophical depth. They may surprise you with their understanding.)

 8. Symbolism.Why did Horace include that splash of red in every single one of his paintings? What might that color have meant to him? Notice Melissa Sweet’s illustrations throughout the book. Does she include a splash of red in her paintings as well? Why do you think she does so?

 9. Inference. Everywhere Horace goes, people ask, “Draw for us, Horace. Paint for us.” Not every artist has this experience. But for Horace it’s almost an everyday occurrence. How come? What is so compelling in Horace’s work that people cannot resist it? Suggestion: Three small replications of Horace Pippin’s actual work appear at the bottom of the very last pages in the book. You might share these on a document projector or, if possible, obtain larger images so that they can take in the details. You can also go online to see replications of Pippin’s work and videos about his life. Simply enter “Horace Pippin” into your search engine for an array of choices.

10. Research. Horace Pippin has often been called a “folk artist.” What does this mean? Have students research this, providing as much help as they require. You might begin with a definition. What is folk art? Then find examples on line to view and discuss. What qualities does folk art exhibit? Be sure to check out the American Museum of Folk Art in New York, as well as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). You’ll find numerous samples of folk art online, as well as interesting summaries of the history of this form. Is folk art something your students might like to try for themselves? Create your own exhibit! And don’t forget . . . Horace Pippin got ideas from his surroundings, experiences, and everyday life. Those simple things can be inspirations for your students, too.

11. Informational writing. Ask students to create a short piece defining “folk art” as an art form and providing one or two examples of folk artists in addition to Horace Pippin. Provide whatever additional assistance with research is necessary.

12. Character development. What sort of person was Horace Pippin? Research this together by identifying specific details or passages from the book that reveal what he was like (e.g., including sketches in his spelling list, helping out at home, finding a way to draw even when he lost the use of his arm). Writing follow-up: Following your class research and discussion, ask students to create a one-paragraph (or longer) character sketch of Horace Pippin, identifying one or more character traits and defending each trait with a specific example from the book.

 13. Organizing through events. A biography can be organized in various ways. For this book, Bryant chose to focus on events that helped shape the person Horace Pippin became. To appreciate how well this organizational design works, ask your students to think like writers and as a class, to make a timeline of the major events throughout the book. (You can do the actual sketching as they offer suggestions. Consider reading the book again as you go and identifying events important enough to add to the timeline). Writing challenge. Students can use timelines or life maps (non-linear lines) to track important events in their own lives. They don’t need to recall everything—but many may know of a move or the birth of a baby through stories told by parents, grandparents, or other care givers. The trick with a good timeline is to capture major events and let the trivia go. These timelines/life maps provide excellent prewriting strategies for creating autobiographies.

14. Voice through art. Like writers, artists have a distinctive voice. Look carefully at the art of Melissa Sweet, as displayed in this book. What words would you use to describe it? Make a class list. Was this particular artist a good choice for illustrating the life of Horace Pippin? Why? What makes Melissa Sweet’s style—or voice—a particularly good match for this story? Suggestion: View a range of picture books illustrated by various artists. Is there a style or voice your students particularly warm to? Consider making an art display using book covers your students feel are outstanding. Opinion writing: Ask students to write a review for a favorite illustrator. The review might include words that describe the artist’s style, or thoughts on what the work makes readers think or feel.

15. Conventions and presentation. Most of the print throughout the book is 19-point Galena Condensed. Most people find this an easy-to-read font. Do your students agree? Notice, however, that the actual words of Horace Pippin (the words he speaks) are made to look very different on the page. How were those words created? Do your students like the chunky letter look? Can they imitate it? Horace himself was commended as an artist for something called “composition,” which is the arrangement of elements on the page. In this book, composition elements include both print and art. How would your students rate the strength of the composition throughout the book on a scale of 1 to 10?

 

 16. Bringing art up close. If you are lucky enough to have an artist in your community, invite him or her to visit your class to talk with students and engage in a conversation about the artistic process. Prepare students for this interview by asking them to think of questions they might like to ask, and even discussing possible questions with one another and with you. Through this process, students can learn more about where artists get their ideas and how they transform an idea into a piece of art. Note: For an insightful look at the artistic process through a child’s eyes, see Harriet Ziefert’s brilliant Lunchtime for a Purple Snake (2003, Houghton Mifflin). The book is currently out of print, but used copies are available online, often for less than a dollar.

 

Lunchtime for a Purple Snake 

17. Collaboration. In this book, it’s clear that author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have a harmonious collaboration going on. They work brilliantly together! Each picture seems to reflect the meaning of the words on the page, all the while adding meaning of its own. Have your students try this. Ask them to work in teams of two (one writer, one illustrator) to create a story, poem, informational piece, or any other form of writing. Like Bryant and Sweet, they might consider reading or researching together, brainstorming ideas, engaging in some sort of prewriting, then creating their final piece. Note: To introduce this activity, you may wish to share the Author’s Note and Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book. What ways did Bryant and Sweet find to work together on this project? What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator? Talk about this with your students.

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

It’s nearly summer, believe it or not. We plan to be around through the summer, reviewing books you may wish to share with students in the upcoming school year. But before we all get involved in the many activities of summer, we want to suggest some parting ideas for helping students think like writers during the summer months. We have a few light-hearted ideas (we’re not talking research papers here) that will keep students’ thinking skills sharp without draining their energy or taking up too much of that precious summer time. Stop by next week and see our list of suggestions—and bring a friend or two. Don’t forget: It’s not too early to plan fall PD. If you’d like some help making the Common Core manageable and practical, or connecting it to process, traits, and fine literature, we can help design a workshop or series of classroom demo’s just for you. Give us a call at 503-579-3034. And meantime . . . Give every child a voice.