Tag Archive: writing instruction


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

vicki_jeff_small

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.

 

The first thing I want to do is take you back in time (Sixtraitgurus time) for just a moment, to October 24, 2011 and a post entitled, The Marshall Memo: A highlight of my week! In this post, I sang the praises of subscribing to Kim Marshall’s amazing weekly missive. Search the STG archives to read the post or just go to: www.marshallmemo.com and get yourself signed up. With that said, let’s return to the here and now, May 2014.

In this week’s Marshall Memo (#535), Kim summarized an article from the April 2014 issue of The Reading Teacher, written by Kristen Marchiando, a third grader teacher from Illinois. (“The Power of Student Noticings” by Kristen Marchiando, The Reading Teacher, April 2014, Vol. 67, #7, p. 560) In the article, Kristen writes about a question she asks her students when looking at a book together. (I strongly suggest that you search out Kristen’s article after reading the MM’s summary.) It’s a simple yet powerful question and something you’ve most likely asked your students many times. Ready for it? Here it is: What do you notice?  Kristen describes using this question to empower her students to lead the direction of discussions and their learning. Over time, by asking this question daily, her students began focusing on details in illustrations, text, specific word choices, figurative language, organizational patterns, and sentence structure. She employs a document camera to project pictures and a variety of writing samples—both from professionals and from the work of her own students. Student responses are noted and used as a kind of formative assessment to help Kristen with follow-up opportunities to extend, expand, and improve student learning. Clearly, asking the question—What do you notice?—is not limited to a particular age of student or use in a reading/writing setting. It could be asked about math concepts, science topics, in a physical education setting, and so on. Wow! All this from one question! Hats off to Kristen and her students (and to the Marshall Memo for highlighting her article)!

I could stop here—I’m sure your mind is racing with ideas for and from your own classroom—but I won’t. Kristen’s article sent my mind racing as well, and I want to share a few of the ways I’ve used the question What do you notice? with students from different grade levels.

In the Classroom

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1. Photographs—National Geographic. Using the awe-inspiring photography found in each issue of National Geographic is certainly not a new idea. I always kept stacks of the magazine in my classroom (I think it’s the most difficult magazine to recycle/discard). It was my pre-internet image library where students could “surf” the world. Recently, I used a document camera to show a group of seventh graders photos from the May 2014 issue article “The Ship-Breakers of Bangladesh.” Along the coast of Bangladesh, near the city of Chittagong, there are 80 ship-breaking “yards.” This is the place where large, old, tankers and freighters go to die—to be beached, disassembled, and scrapped by hand. The work is dangerous, environmentally unsound, and done by workers who risk their lives daily for little pay. I lingered on one photo in particular—a close-up of four young boys, filthy from work, staring into the camera. The boys are clearly younger than the legal age “required” to work in the yards—14, but this was information I withheld from the students. I asked the question, “What do you notice?” Working alone first, I wanted students to record their initial thoughts, impressions, or questions using key words and phrases rather than sentences. I then had them partner up briefly to share and compare, adding anything inspired by their discussion to their notes. Then we opened up a group-wide conversation. Again using the document camera, I charted their noticings. Here are a few of them:

            all wearing hats

            two have hats on backwards or sideways

            seated at a table

            someone standing behind them

            really dirty clothes

            no smiles

            long sleeved shirts

            plaid shirts

            eyes look tired

            sad eyes

            inside a building

            The picture makes me feel sad, because they look sad.

            Are they on a break?

            Do they go to school?

            How much do they get paid?

            What happens to the money they earn?

            What happens if they get hurt?

            Are their parents working too?

            Is the person behind them a guard?

            Are they being forced to work?

            What do they do to get so dirty and tired?

            I wouldn’t want their job.

Here’s one thing I noticed about their noticings—they ranged from the very literal “this is what I see in the picture,” to the more subjective, inferential, and evaluative “this makes me wonder about…this makes me feel…this reminds me of…” This happened without me directing their thinking!

I fed them a bit more information, including the age requirement for employment and the reasoning behind using such young workers—they’re cheap, less aware/concerned of the job’s dangers, and their small size allows them to get into the ship’s most cramped spaces. This information set them buzzing, so I stoked the fire by showing them two other photos, one showing men and boys at work, and the other of the funeral for a 22-year-old worker who had been killed on the job. Their noticings were filled with outrage, empathy, and cries for justice for these workers, along with stories of their own very different work experiences and flirtations with danger.

All this clearly suggests follow-up opportunities for further reading/research about Bangladesh, ship breaking, child labor laws in this country and around the world, and so on. And, as Alejandro (See January 2014 STG post) so wisely said, “After reading comes writing.” Writing to answer a question, reflect on personal feelings or connections to the photos, to share the results of research—these are just a few of the possibilities for students to write about.

2. Illustrations—Picture Books. Using the question, “What do you notice?” with picture books is an obvious choice (they aren’t called picture books for nothing), but I’m going to offer an example anyway. Sharing the illustrations in books of this format, whether you have a document camera in your classroom or use the tried and true method of gathering your students close as you fan each page back and forth for your audience, is essential—duh! Essential for the sake of sharing great art, for providing visual context for new vocabulary, for comprehending the story and accompanying text (if there is any), for helping students make deeper connections between the content and their own worlds, and for launching student led discussions as they talk about what they have noticed. Here are a few suggestions for using a book I recently discovered.

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This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration, by Jacqueline Woodson (hopefully a familiar name), is the fictional story of one family’s move from South Carolina to New York, seeking a better life. Each page begins with the phrase, “This is the rope…” referring to a piece of rope found under a tree in South Carolina and used for jumping by the narrator’s grandmother on the book’s first page. The rope travels with the family holding luggage down to the top of the car as they begin their drive to New York. In Brooklyn, the rope, used for drying flowers, hanging laundry, pulling toys, playing games, is passed on from one generation to the next—grandmother to mother to daughter. The book is perfect for younger students, K-3. The full page illustrations show images of both country and city life—houses, activities, and changing colors—making it ideal for, “What do you notice?”discussions. I would even suggest asking the question as you go through each illustration as a pre-reading strategy before engaging in the text. Once you begin reading, I would ask the question to get them talking about the text’s rhythmic repetition.

This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration. 2013. Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by James Ransome. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

 4. Text—6-Trait Focus. Asking the “What do you notice?” question with students involved in reading is so important beyond even the immediate discussion it would encourage. It gets at the heart of becoming an active reader—are you gathering meaning or just decoding? It strengthens the all important writer/reader connection—what is the writer doing to enhance your reading experience? It helps readers transform a professional’s text into exemplars to help shape their own writing. And it’s a great way to introduce/reintroduce, familiarize, and utilize the language of the six traits of writingIdeas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, and Conventions/Presentation. (See #8 below for links to our Write Traits© products and informative videos.) Our STG archive is full of examples of literature-inspired trait-based writing ideas—be sure to check them out, too. Here’s some ideas inspired by asking students “What do you notice?” about passages from a book I just finished reading, Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson (an author I’m excited to read more from).

 

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Leepike Ridge is a fast-paced Odyssey-like tale about eleven-year-old Tom Hammond’s quest to survive after being lost inside a mountain following his near drowning. Thrown into the mix are a house built on a mountainside, a wild ride down a river, a long-lost professor, artifacts from ancient civilizations, a gang of less than friendly treasure hunters, Tom’s mother fighting off suitors with questionable motives, a crawdad farm, and a heroic dog named Argus. It’s a rousing adventure tale to say the least.

Author Wilson provides readers with opportunity after opportunity for readers to notice elements of his craft and to describe them using 6-trait language. (This is true about many books. Think about the books you love and want to share with others, and you’ll find plenty of your own examples.)

Here are three examples with a specific trait focus.

A)  Organization (introduction, conclusion, order, logic, structure, pattern, linking, connecting)—Read the book’s opening paragraph.What do you notice?

           In the history of the world there have been lots of onces and lots of  times, and every time has had a once upon it. Most people will tell you that the once upon a time happened in a land far, far away, but it really depends on where you are. The once upon a time may have been just outside your back door. It may have been beneath your very feet. It might not have been in a land at all but deep in the sea’s belly or bobbing around on its back.” (page 1)     

B)   Sentence Fluency (varying sentence length/structure/beginning, rhythm, purposeful repetition, easy to read aloud)—Read the passage beginning at the bottom of page 139 with the sentence, “Waking up without daylight could be depressing above ground…” and ending with the sentence, “And Reg was yelling about sunshine.What do you notice as you read the passage aloud? Count the number of sentences and the number of words in each sentence.What do you notice?

C)   Word Choice (strong verbs, precise nouns, appropriate modifiers, “right word for the job,” awareness of audience and purpose)—Read the opening sentence of chapter two (page 17): “After a few mouthfuls of moon-flavored air, even the stubbornly drowsy can find themselves wide-eyed.What do you notice?

Leepike Ridge. 2007. N. D. Wilson. New York: Yearling Books.

http://www.ndwilson.com/

5. Text–Poetry. A lot has to happen before I ask students to launch into the writing poetry of their own. I want them to experience all sorts of poetry by reading it aloud (alone, small group, choral), and memorizing and reciting both assigned and self-selected poems. I think we jump into interpretation and analysis too soon, before giving students a chance to like poetry just for the way the words play to their ears, the ways words are grouped and spaced on a page, or the way it makes them feel as words are spoken. As students are exploring poetry with you, ask the question, What do you notice? as a way to get them thinking about poetry structures, line breaks, rhyme schemes, author’s purpose, and even meaning. Here are two (of the many) poems I have used with students from third grade to high school. So, what do you notice?

The Panther

By Rainer Maria Rilke

 

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

 

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a center

in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

 

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

www.poemhunter.com

 

Spinners

By Marilyn Singer

A wheel.

A top.

A carousel.

A dryer full of clothes.

A yo-yo twirling on a string.

A dancer on her toes.

A lazy leaf caught on a breeze.

An egg before you peel it.

A ceiling fan.

A tall red stool.

The Earth—but we can’t feel it.

Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems. 2009. Edited by Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Brook Press. Page 32.

(See Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard, STG post from November 2, 2010, for more on this book.)

 

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The Fortune Teller by Georges de la Tour

6. Art. Using art—painting, sculpture, photography, pottery, textiles, cultural artifacts, etc.—to initiate discussion and writing is, again, not a new idea, but it’s still a great one. Before sending students off on a search for pieces of art they feel some connection with and “like” (and not in the Facebook sense) for whatever reason, I like to show students some examples of art that I “like.” I get them talking by using the question—What do you notice? The painting above, is one that always starts a discussion, and like I mentioned in #1, their noticings inevitably span the continuum from literal to inferential to evaluative. Some typical noticings include references to color—“that’s a lot of red,” comments about clothing, body position, facial expressions, and even to the artwork’s story—“he’s getting robbed!” I have even categorized student comments about a work of art into six trait categories—ideas (details, story), organization (patterns, structures), voice (color schemes, themes, use of light particular to an artist), etc. After noticing my art selections, I have them turn the question towards their art selections. Their noticings then become personal poetic responses to their art choices. Here are two examples of student poetry inspired by art and the question—What do you notice?

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The Great Wave

(By E.H. Grade 4)

In the great wave

Of Kanagawa Bay

Small boats tumble

While giant waves of claws

From an eagle

Crash down

On people hanging on

For their lives

 

 

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Steel

(By A.K. Grade 6)

Dark,

Wherever I look

It is dark,

Dark and hot as Hell.

 

Everyday we do the same—

We are machines.

 

(Check out books by authors Gillian Wolfe and Bob Raczka to enrich their art knowledge and broaden noticings.)

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7. Writing Process—Assessment and Revision. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other important use of the question, What do you notice? Besides looking at samples of writing from professional sources, students need to cast their noticing eyes on the writing of their classmates and their own writing. This kind of formative assessment informs both teachers and students, leading to further instruction and more purposeful revision. Noticing strengths and areas to improve in the writing of others will help create writers more willing to revise their own work. Revision will not be seen as “starting over” or some form of punishment, but as an extension of the noticing conversations and a natural part of the writing process. “The Coyote Story,” is a sample of student writing I have used with students from second to fifth grade. Students, as young as seven, have noticed some pretty amazing things about this piece of writing, and asked the writer some rather helpful questions leading to a clear revision mission.

The Coyote Story

            I was walking.  I was walking by myself.  It was morning.  It was foggy. I saw two coyotes.  I saw one in front of me.  I saw one behind me.  I was scared.  I looked for a stick.  I clapped my hands.  I stomped my feet.  I screamed at them.  I saw them run away.  I walked home fast!

            Noticings

            Too many periods

            Too many “I’s”

            Too many short sentences

            What did the coyotes look like?

            Did you really walk home? I would have run!

            Where were you?

 

8. Write Traits Kits© and Videos. If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons with a 6-trait/CCSS focus, we invite you to check out our Write Traits© Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:

http://www.hmhco.com/shop/education-curriculum/literature-and-language-arts/language-arts/write-traits

Check out our videos (Sorry—no cats playing the piano or water skiing squirrels) providing you with some nuts and bolts information on the six traits and an insider’s look at the Write Traits© Classroom Kits.

http://forms.hmhco.com/write-traits/write-traits-videos.php

Coming up on Gurus . . . 

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Vicki will be reviewing A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant.  We know the 2013-2014 school year is coming to an end, and we hope that our posts have been helpful to you and your students. So before you slip into summer, if you or your school is thinking about professional development in writing instruction, we can help. Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can make it happen. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know that the Common Core State Standards, and the changes in standardized testing accompanying the standards, are hot topics (if not controversial ones) for students, teachers, parents, school districts and boards, state legislatures, and many other public education stakeholders. So, let’s take a break from that conversation/discussion/pot-stirring for a few moments. I’m not going to mention the CCSS again in this post. Don’t read anything diabolical or political into this! I’m just hoping to emphasize that the instructional wisdom we offer in our posts about strong reading/writing classrooms is not different from what we would be suggesting if there were no CCSS. (Oops—I slipped up. From this point on, there will be no specific mention of the CCSS.) A balance and variety of great literature—fiction and non-fiction to dive into both as readers and writers, a balance of narrative, poetry, informational, and argument writing, teachers modeling through their own writing, teaching writing process and the six traits of writing, students as assessors—of their own writing, the writing of classmates, and the writing of professionals, students as revisers/editors, etc. These have always been important elements of strong reading/writing classrooms, regardless of grade level. It just so happens that the CCSS (last mention—I promise) also values and emphasizes these elements—directly and indirectly. And STG is here to help you make the connections.

OK, the lure of gold is calling to me, just like it did for thousands of adventurous souls willing to risk life and limb to strike it rich in the Yukon way back in 1897. Up dogs, up! Mush! We’re heading north!

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Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure. 2013. David Meissner and Kim Richardson. Holesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.
Genre: Non-fiction, informational
Grade Levels: 4th and up
Features: Historical timeline, detailed author’s note, bibliography, photo credits.
168 pages (including back matter)
Summary
This true adventure story sprung from a bag of old letters, telegrams, and newspaper clippings belonging to the book’s co-author, Kim Richardson. The contents of this bag, passed down through family members, were written and collected by a relative of Richardson’s, Stanley Pearce, who along with his friend and business partner, Marshall Bond were two of the early wave of Yukon gold stampeders heading north in 1897. The authenticity of this tale is a direct result of the amazing primary source treasure of Richardson’s bag and the first-hand research and experiences of lead author, David Meissner. (See Author’s Note, page 156.) Readers will  feel the weight of the hundred pound loads carried on the backs of Pearce, Bond, and the crew they enlisted. Readers will shiver in the sub-zero temperatures of the Alaskan and Canadian north. Readers will ache with hunger and exhaustion as their food supplies dwindle. And readers will twitch with anticipation and gold fever—could this be the big bonanza?—with each flake of gold shining in their pans or small nugget uncovered after hours of shoveling and sluicing. So, were they among the few who really did “strike it rich?” Or were Pearce and Bond among the many whose fortune was merely surviving the adventure and making it back to tell their tale? Up readers, up! Mush! Read on!

In the Classroom
1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. I suggest first reading the Author’s Note (page 156) to set the stage for all that David Meissner went through before doing the actual writing of this book. Because of all the primary source material available, Meissner and Richardson had a great deal of editing and transcribing work to do with the letters, telegrams, diary entries, photographs, and newspaper articles, along with the creation of original material to connect all the parts of the story. If you plan to use this as a partial or complete read-aloud, the photographs and other visuals, so important to this book, need to be shared with students using a document camera. This is a must to help readers connect to the textual elements.
2. Background–Gold. What do your students know about gold? As an anticipatory set, have students do a little brainstorming focused on the questions, “What do you know about gold?” “What do know about the Klondike gold rush?” What is their knowledge of gold as an element, its uses for jewelry and beyond, why it’s valued, where it’s found, its properties, etc.? This could be followed by some quick online research to gather some highlights about this element. Humans have been obsessed with gold for thousands of years, have adorned themselves with it, have hoarded it, destroyed the environment searching for it, and have killed each other for it—so really, what’s up with gold? This will help set the stage for understanding “gold fever,” the term “gold rush,” and help explain why two educated men from established backgrounds would risk everything for a piece of the action in the Klondike.

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

4. Author’s Note—Research/Becoming an Expert. As I suggested to you in #1 above, I would have students begin their experiences with this book on page 156—the Author’s Note. Mr. Meissner begins by saying, “I didn’t know much about gold before this project.” What a fantastic thing for students to hear from the book’s author! How can you write a book about something you don’t know much about? Research! Research! Research! Ask your students to find out exactly what the author did to become an expert on his chosen topic. Begin a list of the kinds of research Mr. Meissner did prior to writing.
A. Met with Mr. Richardson, the keeper of the bag of letters, articles, diaries, telegrams, etc.
B. Read the contents of the bag and began sorting, organizing, and asking questions.
C. Answered the question, “How could I write about the adventures and hardships of the Klondike gold rush while sitting in the comfort of my home in the lower forty-eight states?” His answer? Retrace the steps of Pearce and Bond as much as possible—experience what they experienced.
D. Interviews, conversations, reading, etc.
E. (and so on)

What advice can they take from Mr. Meissner to use in their own writing? What advice might apply when you are writing about a personal experience—something you that happened to you, where you are already an expert? What do readers get when writers are “experts?” When writers really do their research?

5. Organization—Yukon Prep/Making Lists. Why do people make lists? What kinds of lists do you and your students make most frequently? Even if their lists aren’t written, do they have mental checklists for getting ready for school, preparing for a sports team practice, or preparing for a writing assignment? One big reason for making lists is, of course, to plan and organize thoughts, materials, or tasks prior to beginning a project. Schools even provide a supply list prior to the beginning of a new year to make sure students will have what they need. Ask your students to imagine they are going to spend the night at a friend’s house or with a relative. Have them make a list of what they would take with them—a supply list, of sorts. They may only come up with a few items. (Some of your students may have experiences with overnight camping—they could make a supply list for a trip like this.)

Meet with a partner or in small groups to compare lists and discuss the reasons behind each item’s inclusion. (Be sure to create and share your own list—prepping for an overnight stay, a weekend trip, or even a vacation.) What kinds of things were most common? Why? Could some of these items be considered as “essential” for “survival?” What does it mean if something is “essential?” Ask students to do an online search for “the ten essentials of hiking/backpacking.” Discuss why these items are included on the list and a computer, for instance, is not.

Now, look at the list on page 15, “A Yukon Outfit,” reflecting the kinds of supplies Pearce and Bond would have gathered before departing for the Yukon. What general categories—food, tools, clothing, etc.—of items did they bring? What factors would have to be considered when creating a list for a trip like this? Working with your students, create a new list of the factors suggested. Some ideas might be length of stay, weather conditions, terrain, time of year, mode(s) of transportation, proximity to “civilization,” etc. Using “A Yukon Outfit” as a guide, students could work in research groups to create “A Sahara Desert Outfit,” “A Miami, Florida Outfit,” “A Tasmanian Outfit,” etc.

6. Communication—Then and Now. Stanley Pearce agreed to write about his adventures as a correspondent for a newspaper, The Denver Republican. What’s a newspaper? (I’m only partially kidding with this question.) What does it mean to be a correspondent? In 1897, how did people get their news, communicate, and keep in touch? How do people do the same today? Create a T-chart to compare and contrast methods of communication, 1897 (then) and 2014 (now). Some things to consider placing on the chart:  newspaper, email, phone, telegraph/telegram, computers, etc.

People still write and send letters today, but are they as important to communication as they were in 1897? The letters that Pearce and Bond wrote to family members contained news of their daily activities, personal health/well being, and updates on their progress in the gold fields. These letters would have taken weeks, months or more to reach family members who were anxiously awaiting the news. Return letters from home also took months to be delivered to the Yukon and may have travelled by train, ship, horse, dog sled, and human carrier. These letters were almost as valuable as the gold the men were seeking. Have your students ever written or received a letter? Try having them keep a mini-journal (a personal blog on paper) for a day listing, describing, and commenting on their activities in the classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria and hallways. Imagine they are writing to a parent or family member far away—someone they haven’t seen or spoken with for a long time. Specific details will be important to the recipients—names of friends, descriptions of weather, food eaten, how even small moments are spent. Using their notes and example letters from the book—e.g. the letter written from Stanley Pearce to his mother on pages 50-53—students write their own letters, placed into addressed envelopes (some students may have never experienced this) for actual mailing. I would want students to reflect (further conversation and writing) on this process compared to the ease of phone calling, texting, tweeting, chirping, whistling, liking and friending, etc.

7. Transportation—Then and Now. Clearly, communication methods and technology have changed between 1897 and 2014. Modes of transportation have also gone through a bit of a revolution in the same time period. In a similar manner to the T-chart in #5 above, students could chart the modes of transportation experienced by Pearce and Bonds (and all their equipment) as they travelled from Seattle, Washington to Dawson City in the Northwest Territories. Steamship, rowboat, train, horseback, dog sled, foot could all be nearly replaced today by airplane and helicopter. This is where the book’s photographs and maps are more than mere handy references. Using a document camera, I would linger over the photos (as unpleasant as a few are) of the dead horses on pages 48-49, of the 1500 “Golden Stairs” at Chilkoot Pass on page 51, of the hand-built boats on pages 128-129, of the Whitehorse Rapids on pages 62-63, and of the “traffic jam” on the White Pass Trail on pages 42-43. (Of course you and your students will have your own favorites, as well.) Each of these photos would be worthy of a discussion and written reflection. Gold fever was truly a powerful “sickness” if these men were willing to suffer the hardships they endured just to get to the Yukon.

8. Voice–Readers Theater. The letters, telegrams, and diary entries from Pearce and Bond highlighted in #5 above, are not merely important sources of information to be researched, they are essential to the telling of this true adventure. They are the written thoughts, observations, feelings, experiences of Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond, two very real people. David Meissner has thoughtfully selected, transcribed, and organized these writings to assist Pearce and Bond in the telling of their stories. I believe we owe it to Mr. Pearce and Mr. Bond (and the author) to “hear” their voices by reading at least some the letters and diary entries aloud. This could be done as reader’s theater, with the help of your students to create a “script.” This could include portions of letters, diary entries, and selected parts of the author’s text to serve as the story’s “narrator.” Your students might be interested in using their script performed by students as voice over to a Ken Burns style moving montage of the book’s photographs, with period music accompaniment.

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9. Jack London and Robert W. Service. I would be remiss if I didn’t urge you to enrich the already rich content of this book with the novels/short stories (or at least excerpts) of Jack London and the poetry of Robert W. Service. In fact, this book begins with an excerpt from Service’s poem “The Spell of the Yukon.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org will provide you with both his background and access to many of his poems. They are fun to read aloud and provide a poet’s view of the Yukon, the wild times, and the many wild characters who ventured north for gold. Students might want to try their hand at imitating Service’s structure/rhyming scheme with original poems about Pearce, Bond, Dawson City, etc.

You will discover from Call of the Klondike, Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond became acquainted with Jack London in Dawson City and even “hung out” with him. In fact, Buck, the canine protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is based on Jack, one of Pearce and Bond’s dogs. (Refer to pages 142-144 for more on this, including a photograph.) A quick visit to http://www.jacklondon.com will give both a brief biography and a list of his written work.

10. Argument—Human “Needs” vs. Environmental Impact, Mineral Extraction—Past and Present, Affect on the Native People of the Northwest Territories, etc. In a section at the end of the book, “Casualties of the Gold Rush,” the author appropriately opens the door for further thinking, research, and writing. The environment and the Native people’s side of the gold rush story are two of the topics, suggested or implied, for students to pursue further. These would make excellent topics for discussion, debate, public speaking, argument/persuasive writing, or even a mock trial.

Visit http://www.bydavidmeissner.com to find out more about David Meissner’s background, books, and articles.

On Another Note—
Check out http://www.goodnaturepublishing.com, a recently discovered site and
an excellent source for cool posters for your classroom.

Unknown

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff (me) will be reviewing one (or more—I can’t decide) of the following fascinating books: Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50:Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross (the book’s slip cover unfolds into a map!), or When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill. In the meantime, if reading this or any of our other 134 informative posts has you thinking about professional development in writing instruction during the remainder of this school year, we can help. Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can make it happen. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

10 Essential Writing Lessons

10 Essential Writing Lessons by Megan S. Sloan. 2013. New York: Scholastic.
Reviewed by Vicki Spandel
Genre: Teacher resource
Grade levels: Primary focus is 3 to 5, but teachers at any grade level will find this book helpful
Length: 144 pages, including graphic organizers
Features: Printable graphic organizers, step-by-step lessons and detailed instructions, teacher and student writing samples, expansive list of recommended children’s books

Summary
This book packs a punch. It’s a sleek and concise guide to CCSS essentials for writing, but it’s so much more than this. Its modest 144 pages are filled to the brim with information, ideas, suggestions, and step-by-step guidance that could very well change the way you teach writing—forever. You can finish it over a weekend, but don’t sit down to read without a pencil in one hand and a pack of sticky notes in the other because you’ll be using both. Here’s a brief run-down of the content covered within these 10 Lessons (actual titles differ slightly):

• Learning to think like a writer
• Discovering personal writing topics—and writing a narrative
• Learning to narrow your topic
• Organizing information through multiple paragraphs
• Telling more—the art of using detail
• Writing poetry (exploring language)
• Writing a literary essay
• Writing an informational essay
• Writing an opinion piece
• Writing a research report

Each chapter is referred to as a “Lesson,” but this is a little misleading (in a good way) because every “Lesson” spans multiple days and incorporates numerous mini lessons—along with countless tips and strategies. It’s rare to find a book so short and readable with so much immediately usable content.

Connection to the Common Core is obvious throughout—especially in the second half of the book, which deals with writing across multiple genres. Those looking for a way to meet CCSS requirements will find much to love here because it definitely addresses those concerns but does so in a conversational, down-to-earth style that makes the book highly inviting. Here’s the best part: You can actually picture yourself DOING the very things Megan Sloan does with her students.

Thinking like a writer: The first step
The Common Core doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It really doesn’t. The writing standards are not designed to cover “Everything you ever wanted to know about writing.” And yet, we sometimes read them as if that were the intent—overlooking the fact that the Core focuses on measurable goals. That’s its purpose. But that’s not where good writing instruction begins.

Megan Sloan reminds us that long, long before we measure anything, we begin by helping students think like writers. Lesson 1 (think Chapter 1) lays a foundation for helping them do just that.

First, students are asked to keep a writer’s notebook, a place for jotting down writing ideas, observations, and personal thoughts. Megan asks students to build picture collages in their notebooks, capturing things important to them. This becomes one go-to place for writing ideas throughout the year.

Second, Lesson 1 looks at reasons we read. Students brainstorm the kinds of things they read—everything from texts and emails to books and newspapers—and think why someone wrote these things and who the intended audience might have been. This part of the Lesson echoes Donald Graves’ often quoted remark that writing is the making of reading. Understanding this changes how we see writing—and of course, how we write.

Third, students begin to explore the power of mentor texts—which are featured throughout the book. Early on, Megan shares Eve Bunting’s biography Once Upon a Time. In that book, Bunting explains how she became a writer, how writers work, and where they get their ideas. This prompts valuable discussion among students, who are sometimes surprised to discover how hard professional writers have to work at choosing topics, figuring out how to begin, and making sure their writing moves an audience. With this book, Megan begins creating a writing community that includes everyone, students and professionals alike.

And finally, Megan introduces her students to the concept of listing—an invaluable strategy for generating and organizing thoughts. It’s easier, faster, and more flexible than webbing or outlining, and can be used with any form of writing.

Modeling, modeling, modeling
As we discover in this opening Lesson, Megan models almost everything. She does it in such a natural, here-let-me-show-you sort of way, though, that it’s seamlessly integrated into her instruction—no fuss or fanfare. To kick things off, she brainstorms her own personal lists of Good Times and Bad Times—then picks one of the ideas she’s come up with and writes about it. Students coach her, helping her flesh out the details. Later, she shares the result so they can see and hear the contribution their coaching has made. Next, students work through these same steps, discovering how much easier writing can be when someone has shown you how it looks as it unfolds.

Narrative first
Though all three of the CCSS major genres are covered in the book, Megan begins with narrative. The first five Lessons focus on a blend of narrative/memoir and the foundational skills students need to both think as writers and to function effectively in a writing class—things like choosing and narrowing topics, brainstorming, conferring, working in small groups, learning from mentor texts, coaching peers, asking good questions, and handling feedback well.

Megan doesn’t rush to expose students to all genres as quickly as possible, but proceeds at a manageable pace, beginning with what most writers find familiar and comfortable: writing about themselves, their memories, their families, their experiences. She has confidence that strong beginnings will pay dividends as students move into the genres of informational writing and opinion—and indeed (as we see from writing samples later in the book) they do.

Scaffolding
Megan Sloan has transformed scaffolding into an art form. She has an incredibly keen sense of what students need to know and do in order to take the “next step”—whatever that might be.

Virtually every Lesson opens with an exploration of ideas designed to give students a context for what they’re about to learn: Why do we tell stories? Why do we write informational pieces? What’s an opinion? Armed with a basic understanding of the concept at hand, students are ready for examples.

Examples in Megan’s classroom come in several forms. First, students read or hear mentor texts, which they discuss as a class or in small groups or both. Then, Megan shares her own writing, sometimes writing in front of the class, sometimes reading a draft she’s already written. Next, students create an original example of their own by writing as a whole-class team. It works like this.

Before writing their own pieces, students do shared writing, meaning they compose a draft together under the guidance of the teacher, who records their words—sometimes prompting them with questions. For reluctant or challenged writers, this is extremely non-threatening and highly satisfying. They get all the gratification of composing without the stress that often comes with trying something new and complex.

Finally, students are ready to work individually. By this time, they’ve seen both product and process. They know what the end result should (or at least can) look like. They have seen multiple examples, so they also know that successful outcomes don’t all look the same. This isn’t about formula; it’s about possibilities. Students also know many strategies they can apply, from prewriting through publication. It’s a deceptively simple and overwhelmingly powerful approach to writing instruction.

Conferences
Megan likes to confer with her students as much as possible. However, she doesn’t make rules for herself that no one (at least no one human) can fulfill: e.g., Confer with every student on every piece of writing. Instead, she confers with as many students as time permits, roaming the room to see who’s stuck or has a question.

The key to a good conference, she tells us, is simple: Listen. The writer should do most of the talking: “It is important to leave a student’s writing on his or her lap so to speak” (p. 23). A conference, she says, is a time to provide encouragement—and to ask questions about something that isn’t clear or could use a little expansion.

The conference is always directed by the writer. Megan asks, “What kind of help can I provide?” Knowing they’ll be asked this question encourages students to consider ahead of time what they need most at that moment. Only the writer can know where the real roadblocks are. So Megan gives her students responsibility for helping identify those roadblocks; then they can work together on overcoming them.

Personal Topics = Voice
Underlying all of Megan’s teaching is the importance of choice. There are no topic-specific assignments, no directions to write about “an important family member” or “a time you’ll always remember” or “your most embarrassing or frightening moment.” Instead, she tells us, “It is important for students to discover their own writing topics” because that way “they will value the writing” and “It will be close to their hearts” (23). That’s magical. I’m often asked, “How do we teach voice?” What I’ve learned through the years is that we don’t, really. Instead, we get out of the way. Once we set students free to find the right topic and audience, the excitement that freedom generates spills over as voice.

Lesson 6: Writing Poetry
Without stealing Megan’s thunder by revealing too much detail, I want to draw your attention to two Lessons I particularly loved—one on poetry, one on opinion writing. Lesson 6 deals with poetry.

Students begin by recording favorite lines—in other words, by loving poetry. (If you think about it, isn’t that where poets and songwriters begin, too?)

Then they explore—What do we notice or love about poetry? One student says, “Poems can make us happy, sad, laugh, cry, or tug at our heart” and another says, “Poems are not to be read only once” (62).

They also set about discovering “found” poetry: lines that sound like (and ultimately are) poetry—even if that wasn’t the original intention. With the premiere of the new “Cosmos” (now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on FOX and National Geographic), I couldn’t help thinking of two immortal lines by the late Carl Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos”: We are all star stuff . . . and . . . The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I also thought of the moving words Toni Morrison wrote at the end of her Introduction to Remember: The Journey to School IntegrationThe path was not entered, the gate was not opened, the road was not taken only for those brave enough to walk it. It was for you as well. In every way, this is your story.

Inspiration doesn’t come just from books and video, though. Images from a mentor text can also inspire first lines—and you won’t believe the lines these young writers come up with. They visit an on-campus garden for inspiration, too, noticing daffodils bending into each other—as if “whispering secrets,” one student observes. And so begins another poem.

Poetry continues throughout the year as students add photos to their journals and write about them. Each poem is an exploration of language and a chance to look more closely at the world.

Megan closes by encouraging teachers to experiment with many kinds of poetry: acrostic, haiku, and shape poems. But it’s interesting to me that the focus of this Lesson is on free verse, which as its name implies, frees the writer to concentrate on words and images, not rhymes—which can sound forced. In quiet and subtle ways, this Lesson—like all of them—is teaching students to think.

Lesson 9: Writing an Opinion Piece
Lesson 9 is particularly important because opinion or argument writing is a challenging form, the portion of the CCSS that many teachers find most difficult to dissect. Just turning students loose to state an opinion and “back it with evidence” does not necessarily result in strong writing. There’s simply too much to learn about this form—and often, students aren’t sure where to begin. This Lesson offers some sure footing for those finding the path a bit treacherous.

As usual, Sloan begins at the beginning, with the fundamental question: What is an opinion? Students spend one full period discussing this, charting facts and opinions and learning to understand the difference. The creation of charts is significant (not only for this Lesson, but throughout the book). Students have visual representation of their thinking before them all the time, to reflect on, to question, to expand. It’s a continual reinforcement of what they’re learning and a springboard to new ideas.

For mentor texts, Sloan uses both books and articles, searching carefully for topics that are both controversial and of interest to young readers: e.g., Should a highway be built in Tanzania if it will block the path of migrating animals? Should hawks in New York City be allowed to build a nest on an apartment building—even if it means creating quite an unsightly mess on residents’ balconies?

As students read these pieces, discuss them, and chart their views, they see that controversies have two sides. They’ve chosen a topic—the hawks’ nest—but which side of the controversy are they on? Rebuild the nest—or oppose rebuilding? Is one side stronger than the other? As they quickly discover, answering such questions sometimes requires digging for more information than a single article can offer. And just like that, research on hawks becomes their homework assignment.

By Day 4 of the Lesson, students are planning a piece of shared writing, working together. They’re not drafting yet—they’re making notes and shaping the skeleton of what will become their opinion piece. They begin by brainstorming possible leads, then sketch out a design that includes reasons and support, plus a conclusion. I appreciate how careful Megan is not to turn this plan into a formula. She reminds them that as writers, they may have one, two, or three (or even more) reasons for a given opinion. She is not pushing them toward a five-paragraph essay, but inviting them to construct a guided tour through an issue. By now they’ve chosen a side, and they’re growing increasingly passionate about their argument.

On Day 5, the class works on a draft together. Students do the thinking as Megan records their ideas, guiding them with probing questions that encourage them to think ever more deeply through their argument: Is it important for readers to picture the nest? How can we show that the other side is not as strong as ours? The result is a strong whole-class essay that will serve as a model for the personal writing to come.

Days 6, 7, and 8 are spent moving students toward independence. They generate possible topics of their own, carefully plan their own writing, and begin their drafts. Within days, they have gone from figuring out what an opinion actually is to designing and writing independent drafts on a self-selected topic.

Let’s get excited about research! (Say what?)
As an ardent fan of research, I was thrilled that Megan saved this topic for Lesson 10—the final Lesson of the book. If you remember research as tedious, you may be tempted to skip this Lesson altogether. Please don’t. It’s the frosting on the cake. In Megan’s class, research becomes an opportunity for adventure, an exciting quest for answers to a writer’s burning questions. Throughout Lesson 10, she shows how to actually teach research—not simply assign it. And believe it or not, everyone has a rousing good time.

For the shared writing portion of this Lesson, someone suggests writing about Helen Keller, though admittedly not many of the students have even heard of her. Ironically, that makes Keller the perfect topic because every new bit of information they uncover holds the promise of an artifact at an archaeological dig. By the end of the Lesson, students have discovered that Keller was blind, deaf—and “unruly.” They know about her famous friends, stunning accomplishments, and lifelong passions. At the close of their class paper they write, “Helen Keller inspires us with her determination and courage. She gives us hope and makes us believe we can overcome anything” (129). Such is the power of research—and of extraordinary instruction.

This remarkable Lesson is a fitting place to end the book not only because knowing how to uncover information is a vital part of any writer’s repertoire, but also because it reminds us that good research is not just for the infamous “research paper.” In reality, it’s essential to all genres, including narrative.

Highly Recommended
Megan Sloan shows us how to help students think as writers think, then shows us how to guide them through the fundamentals of three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and opinion. The results are a striking match with the CCSS because the standards focus on the same foundational qualities of good writing that you’ll see emphasized throughout this book: clear central topic, good use of detail, sense of purpose and audience, precise wording, strong organizational flow and transitions, striking beginnings and endings. They also—and we often forget this part—highlight the value of research. The standards emphasize what we must do; Megan’s book shows us how.

I urge you to buy 10 Essential Writing Lessons. It will take you right inside the classroom of a master teacher who is herself a writer, and who finds great joy in the teaching of writing. You will love the journey.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ve focused recently on opinion writing and argument. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Common Core informational writing standards, with a few recommended mentor texts for both elementary and secondary students. Until then, thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you like our site, please tell your friends about us. The more, the merrier. Remember, for the BEST workshops and classroom demo’s blending traits, CCSS, and stellar literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Woodward-VickiJeff3249a

Introduction

Argument just might be the most difficult of the three umbrella genres to master—and it’s the one that receives the most emphasis in the Common Core standards for writing. Why is this? The Common Core authors contend that a university is an “argument culture,” meaning that university bound students will need to be skilled in this form of writing because during their college experience, they will use it more than any other. Further, the CCSS writers suggest, only about 20% of our students—at any grade level—are prepared to write a solid argument. It is not emphasized in most writing curriculums, which tend to focus on exposition and narrative, nor do many students fully understand the nature of argument. In addition, while some students have experience writing persuasive essays, very few develop the skills essential to a good argument. But—is there really a difference between the two?

Yes. According to the Common Core State Standards, persuasive writing and argument are related, but not quite the same thing. Persuasive writing can be heavily opinion-based, and tends to rely on the credibility of the writer (Betty Crocker knows her cakes, Stephen Hawking knows about the universe) or on an emotional appeal to the readers (If we care about the earth, we’ll conserve water). Argument, on the other hand, stands on its own, atop a platform of solid facts and evidence. Few of our readers are probably old enough to recall the iconic TV cop Joe Friday, who famously said (repeatedly), “Just the facts, ma’am.” In other words, give me the cold, hard evidence, without any emotion or personal bias mixed in. Let’s consider the big differentiating factor here—evidence—and then explore things we can do to teach this challenging genre effectively.

 

The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

What qualifies as evidence? It’s more than a hunch, more than an opinion, more even than a reason (I like dogs because they’re playful). It’s facts, solid, recordable information, what’s learned over time or through multiple experiences or through direct observation. To make the distinction simple, evidence is anything about which you can ask, What’s your source? And the answer can be cited.

Let’s say I’m making an argument that snorkelers and swimmers are damaging coral reefs. I don’t happen to be a marine biologist, so I cannot rely on personal credibility. If I love coral reefs—which I do, in fact—I can offer a passionate plea to stop harming one of the great treasures of our earth. Coral reefs are beautiful, I claim. Many marine creatures live on the reefs. This might be a good beginning, but so far I still haven’t offered much in the way of solid evidence. I haven’t gone beyond the level of persuasion or opinion piece. Here are some things I could do to elevate my writing to an argument:

  • Talk with a marine biologist
  • Read about coral reefs and how they are eroding
  • Talk with a chemist about the impact of sunscreen on reefs
  • Visit a coral reef in person and take some underwater photographs to contrast fading colors with how reefs looked twenty years ago
  • Gather data on the number of swimmers who visit popular reefs each year
  • Gather data on the current health of reefs worldwide.

In short, evidence—central to any successful argument—consists of any of the following:

  • Scientific data
  • Facts
  • Documented history
  • First-hand observations/experience
  • Information taken from reliable sources (books, Internet, or other media—such as film)
  • Information from interviews with experts

Does the topic matter?

YES!! Many issues remain, in the end, largely a matter of opinion, no matter how much information we might gather on the topic: e.g., Which makes a better pet—a cat or dog? When we set students up with this kind of an issue, one on which it’s a challenge to gather hard-core evidence, we teach them to be persuasive without demanding the fundamentals of good argument. We teach them to rely on personal opinion rather than research. This isn’t easy to reverse. We need to teach students the difference between opinion and evidence and, where appropriate, assist them in choosing a good topic—and developing a claim that can be supported by evidence.

What makes a good topic? It’s something about which the writer is curious, an issue about which people do choose sides, one that permits development of a defensible claim, and one for which evidence is reasonably available through research (reading or other investigation, interviews, site visits, etc.). Let’s say my topic is elephants. An indefensible (through evidence) claim is that elephants are the most interesting of all mammals. I might think so, but I can’t really show it to be true. A better claim, one I can support through evidence, is that female elephants make incredibly good parents. Now the question becomes, How do I support this claim? I’d like to travel to Africa and film elephants in their native habitat for a month or two, but sorry to say, that’s out of the question. Here are some research approaches more within the realm of possibility: visit a local zoo and observe elephants with their young, take notes, take photos, or even shoot a video; interview biologists, caregivers or veterinarians about the behavior of elephants with their young; carefully choose books and articles to read; view online (or other) films about elephants. In the end, the more credible my sources and the more compelling the evidence I gain from them, the more convincing my argument will be.

You may be thinking that argument demands a greatly expanded definition of writing. That’s correct—and it’s correct because it relies on research. Information to support an argument cannot generally be pulled out of the writer’s head. It has to be sought out. This means identifying good sources, tracking them down, taking meticulous notes, summarizing the best information in a way that makes sense, ordering that information logically, and citing sources thoroughly and correctly. That is a lot to learn—and a lot to teach. And there can be a twist, too—one for which we don’t usually prepare students: As a researcher, I must be open to the idea that my original premise is wrong. If I discover, in the course of my research, that elephants are not good parents after all, then the whole structure of my argument must change. Argument writing, in the end, is not a quest to validate the writer’s original thinking; it’s a search for the truth.

Doesn’t passion have a role to play in argument?

Some CCSS people would probably say no. But I disagree. Writers who feel passionate about a topic are likely to be more convincing. That doesn’t mean they can forego evidence, though. This is easier to understand if we put it into a courtroom context–a place where good argument is vital.

Let’s say I’m defending a person who’s accused of a shooting an intruder. I can say he was a nice person, that he would never do such a thing. Everyone liked him. The neighbors say he “seemed like such a regular guy.”

Such claims may well be convincing, but if the prosecution has hard evidence, a passionate plea appealing to emotion may not be enough. Let’s say that the prosecution can show that the intruder was someone the defendant knew, and they had a long history of discord. Maybe the defendant bought a gun a week before the shooting, though he’d never owned one before. In the face of strong counter arguments, I need more than opinion or passion. I need evidence.

Evidence in this case might include things like the following: Footprints show that the intruder came to a back window, not the front door as one might expect; and the intruder was wearing a mask—so it’s reasonable to assume he was trying to hide his identity. This evidence is the core of my case. I can also argue passionately that the defendant was a kindly person, who had no history of violence. That’s a compelling defense that will likely strengthen my argument—but it will not take the place of evidence.

The thing to remember is that in a CCSS assessment, readers will look for solid evidence. Writers need to ask themselves, “Did I prove my case?” Passion won’t hurt—so long as it does not camouflage, replace, or minimize evidence.

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

Up through grade 5, the CCSS call for students to write opinion pieces, not arguments per se. The defining characteristics of an opinion piece are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim
  • The writer offers reasons to support that claim (School uniforms are not a good idea because they are expensive)
  • The writer offers facts or details to strengthen his/her reasons (School uniforms can cost over $100 each, and every student needs at least two of them)
  • The writer uses transitions (For example, To illustrate, Consequently, On the other hand, In addition) to link reasons or details to the main claim
  • The writer sets up the paper by making the issue clear and closes by reinforcing his/her position or otherwise guiding the reader toward a good decision

Beginning in grade 6, students are expected to write more formal arguments—and personal opinion plays a much smaller role, if indeed it is present at all. Reasons generally yield to evidence (as noted earlier), and such evidence is expected to be substantive, convincing, and grounded in research. The essentials of an argument are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim and sticks with it throughout the argument
  • The writer offers support for that claim in the form of evidence
  • The writer organizes information in a logical manner (The argument makes sense and is easy to follow)
  • The writer uses “words that clarify relationships” among claims and reasons: e.g., As the following example illustrates, To make this point even more clear, For this reason, In conclusion, To look at it another way, In addition, On the contrary
  • The writer relies on research and cites credible sources to back his/her claims
  • The writer adopts and maintains a formal (think academic) style throughout the piece

 A word of caution: It’s easy to see that in transitioning from grade 5 to grade 6, some students (indeed, some teachers) may find themselves confused. First opinion matters deeply. Then it disappears behind the scenes, replaced by evidence. The CCSS writers contend that the opinion pieces students write K-5 lay the groundwork for the more formal argument pieces that will follow in middle school on up. There’s a problem with this, however. “Groundwork” suggests that students build on what they have learned. In fact, they’re asked to leap onto a whole new ladder. It is true that opinion pieces do teach students to state a claim and to back it with reasons. So one could argue that this is an organizational framework that will serve them well in the future. That’s fine so far as it goes. Confusion occurs because the substance of the argument changes. Beginning in grade 6, evidence and research take center stage, and students may be relatively unprepared for this sudden shift. Instead of pulling opinions from their own minds, they must now investigate outside sources and assemble evidence. This isn’t convincing mom and dad to buy a puppy. It’s showing evidence that pets improve the quality of life. That’s a pretty big leap.

Here’s my suggestion: Teach opinion pieces in the early grades (as the CCSS suggest), but help students make the transition by showing, early on, the difference between opinion (or reasons) and true evidence. We do not need to demand evidence in their writing at this stage, but I think we do need to show them what evidence is, and indicate that beginning in middle school, they will be doing more independent research. It is never too early to teach research and the documentation of that research. Too many college students flounder because they have no idea how to track down information, incorporate it into their writing, or cite the sources from which they took it. Even with primary students, it is possible to model the borrowing of a fact, and show how that fact strengthens personal writing.

Let’s say I’m writing about throwing trash away on the beach. My claim is that this is a bad idea, and one of my reasons is that trash could be harmful to marine animals. Even kindergarteners, many of them, will agree with this. But if I wanted to show them how to make my argument stronger, I could read a very short passage from a book called Tracking Trash by Loree Griffith Burns (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I might tell them, “I want to make my argument even more convincing by including a fact. This is called using evidence. Tell me if you think I should put any of this evidence in my paper about trash.” I will then read (or paraphrase) some short, pre-chosen excerpts from pages 38-39 of Burns’ book: e.g.,

  • “There is no organism anywhere on the planet that can digest plastic.” (p. 38)
  • The number of animals in the Pacific Ocean that die each year from eating plastic is about 100,000. (p. 39)
  • If we could “turn off a plastic switch” somehow, bits of bottles, hats, soccer balls, sneakers, and tub toys would keep washing up on shore for 30 or 40 years. (p. 39)

I have no doubt that even very young writers will find this information interesting. I have no doubt that they will see how any or all of these research findings would strengthen my writing. But best of all, even if they don’t begin doing this themselves for five more years, they will begin to grasp the difference between opinion and evidence. They will begin to see the value of evidence. It’s not just some arbitrary CCSS requirement. It’s a tool for making writing powerful, a tool for changing human behavior.

 

What is “logical” order anyway?

The CCSS call for logical order in argument, but do not define what that looks like. In all fairness, logical order is not an easy concept to get your arms around, but we need to help students understand what it does—and does not—look like. In the simplest terms, it’s constructing an argument the reader can follow. The best tests for this are to (1) read your own writing aloud to yourself—more than once; and (2) share your writing with a partner, who can point out any moment where he or she feels lost.

Logical order should also include these elements:

  • A strong lead. A good lead in an argument lays out the issue at hand and makes the writer’s central claim clear.
  • Orderly presentation of key evidence. Let’s go back to my topic of eliminating trash on the beach. Suppose I have evidence that the increased volume of plastic trash in the ocean kills marine life, disrupts the food chain in the ocean, and reduces the supply of consumable fish. I need to decide in what order to present these—and I would choose the order in which I’ve listed them. Why? Because killing marine life is the most obvious consequence, disrupting the food chain is something readers might not think of immediately, so I can rekindle interest with that point, and finally, interfering with fishing hits home. It’s my strongest point because it affects people personally—so I save it for last. (This is one part of organizational structure I always sketch out on scratch paper.)
  • Counterarguments and rebuttals. Counterarguments are often best handled after the writer has presented the majority of his or her evidence. There is little point in weighing in against arguments that have yet to be made. Counterarguments on the topic of plastic waste might include things like (1) it’s too expensive to deal with it, (2) marine animals are highly adaptable and will accommodate to this new situation, and (3) the problem is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the media. A whole section of my essay must include open and honest discussion of each of these issues and my rebuttals.
  • Transitional phrasing. Transitions are essential in any form of writing, not just argument. But it’s also fair to say that transitions play a special role in this genre because they guide readers’ thinking. Consider how your brain responds to each of the following: To be more specific, Though it isn’t obvious at first, To look at the issue another way, Although this seems like a sensible argument, Furthermore, In addition, Most compelling of all . . . Each one of these sets us up, as readers, to make more of what follows. Mastering transitions is an exercise in higher thinking, so don’t expect miracles in just weeks. But continue providing examples from the best writing you can find, and discuss them. How does each transition affect thinking?
  • A powerhouse ending. Endings matter. They need to stick in our minds, wrap up loose ends, give us new things to think about—and perhaps, in the case of argument, suggest new thinking or action. An ending must be more than a summary of what we’ve read. It is condescending to simply summarize what’s been said, as if the reader were inattentive or not very quick. It’s lazy to leave things dangling, or toss the choice of options to the reader—the old “What do you think?” way out. A good argument might close with a call to action, a summary of the consequences of inaction, or even with the most powerful piece of evidence—one the writer has held back until this moment. A good question to ask is, What doesn’t the reader know yet that will push him/her to a good conclusion?

 

3 Additional Tips

Not everything can be incorporated into standards. Following are three tips for strong argument writing that you may or may not infer from reading through the standards:

  1. Know your topic. Nothing, nothing whatsoever, takes the place of this. It’s impossible to measure how well a writer knows a topic—but it’s easy to gain an impression. Writers who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about quickly lose the attention of a reader. If you think professional assessors never skip right from first paragraph to last, think again. It happens frequently, especially when people are pressured to read quickly, and they think they already know what the writer is (or isn’t) going to tell them. Well-informed writers can wake readers up. They are able to choose details that matter, details that are both interesting and important to the argument at hand. They also anticipate what the other side is thinking and that makes counter arguments easier to refute with skill.
  2. Write with voice. You won’t, of course, find this bit of advice in the CCSS. They’ve tried their best to make voice a non-issue. The problem with that is that readers are incapable of ignoring voice. It’s like ignoring air. Gotta have it or everything else becomes irrelevant. The CCSS calls for students (grades 6 and up) to “adopt a formal style.” The reason for this is obvious. You don’t want to appear at the Oscars in your tee shirt. Formality commands a certain respect. It makes the writer appear serious. But let’s step back and assess what “formal style” really means. Does it mean to write in a cold, detached manner? To appear uninterested in one’s own topic? I don’t think so. I think it means to write with voice—but a certain kind of voice. Not playful, not humorous, not jokey or sarcastic, lofty or arrogant. Not a voice that shines the spotlight on the writer instead of on the topic. But rather, a voice that is confident, knowledgeable, thoughtful, curious, intrigued, impressed by and respectful of the results of one’s own research. And above all—helpful. A voice that reaches out to the reader with this message: This information is fascinating, and I want to share it with you as clearly as I can. Please tune in.
  3. Take a stand and stick with it. Many students are cautious about offending anyone. So they conclude their persuasive writing with comments like this: Dogs or cats? I like them both! Which would you choose? They need to know that as conclusions go, this is pretty weak. Some readers find it downright annoying. Our message to writers needs to be “Be bold. Dare to take a stand, even if some readers disagree. They will still respect your position if your reasons and evidence are strong.” Then, an ending can go more like this: “Cats may live twice as long as most dogs, but the joy you’ll know spending time with your dog makes up for it!” OR—“It’s true that you cannot train most cats to fetch sticks or do other tricks, but cat owners actually prefer untrained pets who behave more as animals do in the wild.”

 

What to Teach: 6 Essentials

Here’s a quick summary of six things we must teach in conjunction with argument:

  1. The nature of argument itself. Students have difficulty (As we all do, to some extent) distinguishing between argument and opinion or emotion-based persuasion, so help them make this distinction, keeping in mind that arguments rely on evidence.
  2. The nature of evidence. It isn’t easy to go from “Here’s what I think and why” to “Here’s what I think based on the evidence I’ve collected.” Understanding the forms evidence can take is an important first step.
  3. Research fundamentals. Research is fun. Raise your hand if you agree. Actually—I’m not kidding. Research can be fun, if you know how to go about it. I mentioned things like snorkeling on the coral reef or visiting the zoo. Such things don’t always come to mind when students think of research. They imagine long hours poring over the Internet, taking tedious notes. But site visits, personal experience, films, and interviews can and should be part of research, too. In addition, we can alleviate some of students’ research phobia by giving them instruction on simple things like figuring out where to look for information in the first place, making a research plan (complete with timeline), navigating the Internet, arranging an interview, or taking good notes. Many, many, many students struggle with note taking, and this makes research a nightmare.
  4. Evaluating the validity of a source. Not all books or Internet sites contain valid, reliable information. Knowing how to assess the value of a source is important, and needs to be taught through modeling and discussion.
  5. Quoting effectively. Ever notice how many quotations look like they were dropped into the text from a hovering helicopter? Students need to know how to find a good, relevant quotation; how much to quote (whole paragraphs are too much, single words not enough); and above all, how to set up a quotation so that it feels like an integral part of the argument instead of a pine cone falling on your head. You can use mentor text for good illustrations and model the use of introductory set-up lines such as these: As Jeff Hicks often says . . . Donald Murray makes this clear with the following message . . . As Loree Griffith Burns points out . . . Consider this comment from Anne Lamott . . .
  6. Writing clearly. Fuzzy arguments fail. Readers need to know where the writer stands and why. If the reader cannot summarize the argument, including evidence, counter arguments, and rebuttals, it’s not clear enough. Once students finish drafts, pair them up and have partners try summarizing each other’s arguments. This is an excellent way for writers to detect loopholes and plan ways to revise.

 

Some final thoughts

Argument is not a mental wrestling match, an effort to “win” or come out with more points. It’s an attempt to educate readers so that together you arrive at the most logical or helpful conclusions. Argument is important in any field—education, medicine, scientific research, technology—where the consequences of poor decisions could be dire. To teach argument is to teach thinking.

 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next week, Jeff will offer reviews of some of his favorite new literature, discovered over the holiday break. I (Vicki) will return in about two weeks to review Holly Goldberg Sloan’s compelling story of friendship, family, and outsiders, Counting by 7s. Meantime, are you thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.