Tag Archive: writing


 

 

Write What Matters, for Yourself, for Others by Tom Romano. 2017. San Bernardino, CA.
Genre: Teacher resource
Levels: Writers and writing teachers at all levels will find much to love in Romano’s down to earth, highly readable text.
Features: Carefully selected student samples, anecdotes from the author’s vast experience as a writer and teacher, tips on writing and revising well, quotations from other writers you already know and love.

Overview
Want to inspire your students to create the best writing of their lives? This is your book.

Want to produce some great writing of your own? This is your book, too.

Got a half-finished piece of writing tucked away in a drawer somewhere? A piece you don’t think is good enough to publish? This is most definitely your book—and by the time you finish it you’ll be scrambling to dig that piece out and go to work.

Tom Romano packs an impressive stash of wisdom into a slim 132 pages. You can finish the book in an afternoon, but you’ll return to it again and again. It’s a treatise on daring to write fearlessly, combined with tips on writing and revising well, and examples—from professional writers, students, and Romano himself—to show how that’s done. Chapters are short and snappy, highly conversational, and bound together by one simple, yet profound message: Write with courage. Do it.

Throughout the book, Tom quotes other fearless authors I love, including Michael Pollan, Larry McMurtry, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Tim O’Brien, Donald Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, J. Ruth Gendler, and others. As I’m happily tuning in to these familiar voices, I’m also appreciating how Tom consistently, almost relentlessly, links writing to reading. It’s not enough just to read casually, though. As he illustrates so brilliantly in this book, we have to read attentively, looking for words used well, listening for voice, paying attention to beginnings and endings, letting sensory details wash over us and recalling how that felt. As a reader, he tells us, “Take to heart the written voices of authors you love” (92). From page one, this book is a lesson in reading like a writer.

In the end, Write What Matters is about trust. Trust in language, in ourselves as writers, and above all in our students. Romano says it this way: “For my students—and for myself—I want a boldness in using the language that offers itself to us. No hesitancy. No timidity. No procrastination” (6).

Early on, Romano talks about “trusting the gush,” letting our writing energy explode on the page, restraining all censorship or judgment. This can be hard for students. One of his Chinese students (part of a teacher education program in English Language Arts), found it exceedingly difficult to let go and be herself on paper. She’d already had some success with a formulaic approach to writing: introduction, three points, conclusion. And as superficial and unsatisfying as formula is, it’s hard to walk away from what you feel you can control. “She was doubtful, distrusting, and anguished,” Romano tells us. “In the beginning weeks of the semester, though, she participated in good faith. She let the language lead her, and she found she had things to say, things that weren’t in her mind when she began to write. ‘I think it a little bit magic,’ she wrote” (7).

Isn’t that precisely what we want for our young writers? A little bit of magic?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll read Tom’s book with a highlighter in one hand and a pen in the other. That way, you’ll wind up with no end of inspiring passages to share with students. In his own words, Tom seeks to be our “writing friend” (xv). And that friend is telling us to be nervy and unstoppable, to live on the literary edge.

Tom's book

Following are a few of the many features that render this small book so important.

Going inside Write What Matters

The Importance of Voice. A colleague of mine has a name for a decaf skinny latte with sugar-free flavoring. She calls it The Pointless. That’s exactly how I feel about writing without voice. My belief was affirmed a few years ago when a friend gave me a copy of Tom Romano’s book Crafting Authentic Voice (Heinemann, 2004). I devoured it that same night, burning through the pages, crying yes, yes, yes!! In that book, Romano makes a compelling case for the idea that it’s voice more than any other quality that keeps readers reading. Crafting Authentic Voice is filled with countless brilliant strategies for finding your own voice—and helping others do the same.

When I read Write What Matters it was like visiting an old friend. This new book also contains valuable lesson ideas for strengthening voice. Even better though, this time around, Romano cuts right to the chase with one uncompromising rule: Write fearlessly. Ultimately, voice comes from daring to say what we really mean. To state it boldly and unequivocally. To write “what matters.” As Tom himself says, “Don’t let fear or doubt or standards stop the flow of words from you to the page” (8).

The Writing Notebook. Romano talks about hearing the echoes of former teachers and other critics who might not like his choice of topic, the words he chooses, or the way he uses them to build sentences. Sound familiar? One voice in his head grumbles, “What on earth, may I ask, is your thesis?” (10). The notebook spells freedom from all that: “Through the notebook, I broke the surface and sucked air into my lungs” (11). No more over-the-shoulder criticisms and inhibitions. In our writing notebooks, we can be ourselves. All things are possible. Moreover, the notebook provides the practice, practice, practice it takes to write with confidence and skill.

Tom takes his notebook everywhere, he tells us, so he can write at a moment’s notice. Though I admire this idea enormously, I do my daily writing on the computer. You may choose to write in a leather bound journal or on a small spiral bound notepad you can tuck in a pocket. Format isn’t important. It’s doing it every day that counts. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I’d know what to say.” In Write What Matters you’ll find many ideas for interesting things to include—quotations, memorable words or phrases, dialogue, potential writing topics, descriptions, sketches, complaints, predictions, observations, and more. The beauty of the notebook is that you can make it what you want. No boundaries, no assignments, no minimum lengths—and no negative comments! Why not start one today?

“Take pictures of your writing place.” (p. 29) Have to say, it never occurred to me to do this, but when I read Chapter V, A Writing Place, I realized how important “place” really is to writing. Do we think of this in school? Not usually. Students often have little time to write, and when they do, they often sit at uncomfortable desks in rigid rows surrounded by distracting noises. Imagine if they could move those desks out of formation, sit in beanbag chairs, venture outdoors—or even gather on a comfortable rug on the floor. Would it make a difference? Well, just ask yourself where you like to sit (or stand) when you write.

I’m lucky. I got to design my writing space. My desk is blue pine—pine that’s been “antiqued” naturally by insects. Its little notches give me something to scan as I’m thinking what to write next. It’s angled to surround me as I sit facing out toward a window that frames two hundred year old Ponderosas. The front is all book shelves, and the back is filled with tiny drawers and cubbyholes that hold pens, post-it notes, and other writing tools. On the wall hangs an “I Am From” essay by my grandson, alongside a framed copy of the timeless advice from Strunk & White: “Omit needless words”—art courtesy of author and illustrator Melissa Sweet. It’s my corner, and I’m at home the minute I sit down.

You might have your students photograph their writing spots, too. They’ll have fun sharing photos and talking about the kinds of places various writers like to work. In addition, it will help them appreciate the importance of choosing a spot where writing feels natural and comfortable, like something we’re meant to do.

Chapter VI, “Risk and All.” Risk is something all writers face. After all, we are sharing ourselves on paper and readers may not like what we say, or the way we say it. Fear of rejection makes many students write with caution and cautious writing rarely works. It never works when we are writing about things close to the heart—the things that matter. We don’t always have to write about “topics from the heart of darkness,” as Tom puts it, but edgy writing can take us from good to “memorable” (31-32).

One of the hardest thing I’ve ever done was to move my mother to a nursing facility so she could receive the 24/7 care she needed. She had dementia, and believed she was packing for a trip. My heart cracked as she carefully pointed out the things she wanted in her suitcase. When it wouldn’t hold anything more, we took off. She didn’t notice that we only drove three miles.

Though the facility itself was as bright and airy as that sort of place can be, it was decidedly medical with all the sights, sounds, and smells that implies. As I wheeled her inside, my mother—whose state of mind had freed her from all inhibitions—asked, “Why the hell did you choose this hotel?”

Writing about this experience was enormously therapeutic, but also risky, yes. My mother was a naturally funny, outrageously blunt person. As I wrote, the dark humor she inspired kept creeping in, and that made me a little uneasy. I could imagine readers/listeners saying, “What’s wrong with you? How can you laugh in the midst of this nightmare?” I had to trust my instinct that humor thrives in the bleakest of worlds. Without humor, I couldn’t honor this woman who, while losing her mind, kept the rest of us afloat with her quirky, comical observations.

I knew all the risk had been worth it when I read Tom’s unflinching advice: “Whatever you choose to write about—and I, for one, hope you write about it all—don’t hold back. Dive into your experience and perceptions with openness, honesty, and commitment” (32). This is some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever read. Here, I think to myself, is a teacher who is not just willing but wanting to read everything his students put out there. Saying, like Al Pacino in the movie Heat, “Gimme all ya got!” What writer can resist an audience like that? If you’ve ever wondered how to motivate students, there’s your answer.

The Beauty of Dialogue. Ever leaf through a book just to see if there might be, oh please, some dialogue in your future? Why do we do that as readers? Because dialogue provides a respite from the drone of uninterrupted narrative—even when that narrative is good. Dialogue, unless badly written, shimmers with voice. It also defines character. Folk wisdom says we’re what we eat, but literary wisdom says we’re also what we say. “Without dialogue,” Romano reminds us, “there would be no plays, no novels, no creative nonfiction, no films” (44). All the forms of communication we treasure most.

Writing dialogue takes a good ear. You need to read it aloud—more than once. You need to embrace incomplete sentences and broken, run-together, even mispronounced words. That’s how we talk. Romano suggests that the writing notebook provides an ideal place to practice. And he’s not opposed to eavesdropping on conversations! “Record exact words,” he says. Don’t just sum up what was said. That way, you can “revel in nuances, fragments, assumptions” (45).

As Romano reminds us, one of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to read books written by those who are masters. Larry McMurtry, Sandra Cisneros, Mark Twain and E. Annie Proulx come immediately to mind. No doubt you have favorites of your own.

Among the most brilliant writers of dialogue in children’s or YA literature I would list Roald Dahl, E. B. White, William Steig, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gary Paulsen, Steve Sheinkin—and Esmé Raji Codell.

In her delightful book Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: A Memoir of my Fifth-Grade Year (2004), Codell tells of an incident involving her headstrong mother and the rude driver of a shiny red Jaguar—who happens to park directly beside a fire hydrant. Since the police aren’t giving this law breaker a ticket, Esmé’s mother ropes her fifth grade daughter into handing out justice. Notice how well Codell captures the rhythm of human speech, using strategies Tom Romano highlights in the book to create the “give and take” (44) of authentic conversation:

“What a joke! I’m laughing! HA! What does he care? As long as he gets a space.” I interrupted Mom to pull at her sleeve and point. A police car was coming down the street. It passed the car without slowing. “See? See?” sneered my mom. “He doesn’t even get a ticket. Nothing to stop him from doing what he wants. Nothing to show him we don’t like it.” My mother shook her head. “And I don’t like it.”
She went into the apartment and came back out again.
With a carton of eggs.
“Ma!”
“What? He’s a schmuck. The man’s a schmuck.”
“But Maaaa! Gee. You really gonna do it?”
“No,” she said. She opened the carton and handed me an egg.
“Ma! That’s not fair!”
“I’m your mother and you’ll do what I tell you,” she said plainly. “Now, hit the windshield.” (10)

As you read this or other passages aloud, talk with your students about things good writers do to make dialogue work. Then share these additional dialogue writing tips from Tom Romano:

  • Use said (most of the time) in favor of fancier words such as admonished, cried, announced, declared. (Check out Lonesome Dove—a book with some of the best dialogue ever written—and you will see that author Larry McMurtry uses said almost exclusively.)
  • Avoid adverbs—“Drop the gun,” said Dick forcefully. Let the content carry it: “Drop the gun,” said Dick.
  • Keep it brief. Tom reminds us that real people chat. They don’t deliver speeches to each other.

Sensory Details. “Develop the habit of writing toward the senses,” Romano suggests. “Don’t worry about overdoing it. You can always cut back” (54).

I’m a big fan of sensory detail because it’s strategy number one for transporting readers right into a scene. Students do overdo it, though. While describing the carnival, they deluge us with the jingling music of the carousel, piercing screams of the roller coaster riders, stomach jolting sensations of being catapulted through space, pungent smells of the buttery popcorn and foamy beer, garlicky taste of the hot dogs and syrupy sweetness of the cotton candy. This isn’t sensory detail—it’s sensory assault. But despite all that, I suspect Romano is right. Collect first. You can toss the excess later. Subtlety comes with time, with learning to sift through memories and celebrate the one or two senses that stand out.

In The Winter Room, author Gary Paulsen talks about how much readers bring to books. Such things as smells are not really in the books, he tells us, but in ourselves. If books could have smells, though . . .

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, and the acrid smell of the slop bucket by the door when the lid is lifted and the potato peelings are dumped in—but it can’t . . . . Books can’t have smells. (The Winter Room, 1989, 1-2).

Paulsen focuses exclusively on one type of sensory detail, but notice the rich experience our imaginations create. Amidst the rich aromas, we still see the woodstove and mittens and bucket, hear the crackle of burning wood and the sizzle of potatoes sputtering in the grease. Our tongues are already feeling and tasting that light pepper.

At the end of this chapter, Romano suggests choosing an activity—“cooking, playing, loving, working, sporting”—and writing down all the sensory details we can recall. “Write directly into the experience” he says, censoring nothing until you see what memory yields. This all-inclusive approach is highly strategic because if you censor too early, you might overlook the leather mittens or the burning pine. Even tiny details, if well-chosen and vividly portrayed, can evoke a whole range of sensory responses in readers. Consider Romano’s closing lines: “You hear the blare of the noon siren and raise your head. Your mouth starts watering for a toasted cheese sandwich” (55). No need to ask what you’re smelling and tasting as the siren wails. Sensory detail thrives on the power of association.

Chapter XV, Break the Rules in Style. I love this chapter. Who wouldn’t? Here the master teacher is encouraging us to be “ornery, rebellious, defiant” (63). Sounds like fun. Do we need to know the rules before we start this party? Absolutely. But once we do, we can write in lists, construct labyrinthine sentences (the perfect term for a long sentence that keeps its act together and never leaves you floundering), splash fragments through our prose, play with spelling, and more.

Tom also mentions these irresistible rule violations near and dear to my heart:

  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction, such as And or But
  • Using fragments
  • Writing one-line paragraphs

Why shouldn’t we do these things if they contribute to style or voice? “The land of writing is big,” Romano assures us. “It contains much” (69). Consider how e. e. cummings shrugged off punctuation and capitalization. Think what fun Sandra Cisneros had in The House on Mango Street (check out the chapter “Four Skinny Trees”) playing with fragments and repetition, and blurring the lines between prose and poetry. Who would want to lose all that?

Take Romano’s sage advice: Learn the rules, but once you do, “Don’t be afraid to experiment, to play, to invent your way to writing well” (69). It’s just one more way of being fearless.

Leads—or Ledes. Romano uses the journalistic spelling—ledes—but the concept is the same. Those first words, sentences, or paragraphs. Tom underscores their importance with these words: “If the first page doesn’t compel readers’ attention and pique their interest, than all that follows is for naught” (74).

He supports his argument with several striking examples from literature, along with suggested types of ledes and activities to help students generate strong openings of their own. In particular, he recommends “quickwrites” of multiple ledes to generate a “creative current” in the classroom (78). This approach is wonderfully effective in helping students shake off the misperception that it’s critical to nail a lede, or any part of writing, on the first pass—or even the second. In my experience, students are startled to learn that professional writers routinely write three, four, or even twenty ledes before finding the one that works.

What’s remarkable about Write What Matters is that through energizing activities like the quickwrites, Romano finds a way to instill habits like practice, experimentation, and revision without reducing them to drudgery. He keeps it all do-able, within reach, all the while pushing students to new heights of success. This balancing act is pure instructional genius.

I’ve collected leads (I always return to this spelling because it suggests what an irresistible lead does—lure us into the writing) all my writing and teaching life, so I’ve had a chance to accumulate numerous favorites. Here are a handful—and as you read them, ask yourself which ones would compel you to keep reading:

  • The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. (Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008, Chains)
  • “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (E. B. White, 1952, Charlotte’s Web)
  • Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox. (Sy Montgomery, 2006, The Good, Good Pig)
  • If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it. (Richard Peck, 2004, The Teacher’s Funeral)
  • It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, 1981, Farenheit 451)
  • Meeting Harris would never have happened were it not for liberal quantities of Schlitz and Four Roses. (Gary Paulsen, 1993, Harris and Me)
  • Most stories about the destruction of the planet involve a villain with an evil plot. (Mark Kurlansky, 2011, World Without Fish)
  • They murdered him. (Robert Cormier, 1974, The Chocolate War)

Collect favorites with your students and follow Tom Romano’s excellent advice to make the writing of multiple ledes a habit.

Imitation and Charles Harper Webb, poet extraordinaire. Throughout the book, Romano advocates tinkering with voice, occasionally imitating a writer whose voice speaks to us. This is not to say each person shouldn’t develop a voice that is his or her own. Not at all. It’s simply a way of stretching, exploring, coming at the world from a new direction just to see what happens when you step out of your comfortable shoes.

If you’re not familiar with the poetry of Charles Harper Webb (I confess I was not), you need to look up the incredibly entertaining poem “How to Live” online. It’s just what you would think—advice. But the scope, from deep to whimsical, practical to philosophical, playful to dead serious will delight and surprise you. Read it several times. Then follow Tom’s suggestion and write a “How to Live” poem of your own. You’ll be stunned by the voice that emerges. (At this point, Romano quotes one version by Brittany McNary Thurman, a college senior—and I believe it’s my favorite student sample in this book, which is saying quite a lot. Find it on pages 95-96.)

The lesson here, though, is not simply one of imitation. It’s an echo of Romano’s earlier admonition to sit up and pay attention to the writers we love. Learn from them, he says. “Sit in their classrooms of the page” (96).

Embracing Revision. The final chapters of the book are about revision, a topic Romano approaches from both a philosophical and practical stance. In the chapter titled “Befriending Revision,” he talks about revision as a natural part of life. We are revising constantly, “changing our minds, changing course” (104). Further, revision is not an admission of error or wrong-doing, but “a mark of growth and maturity,” a sign we have raised expectations for ourselves, an indication we are learning to care about readers (104-105).

In the chapter “Dwelling in Your Words,” Romano offers a concise tutorial on things we must attend to when we revise—the essentials: the lede, precise wording, imagery, sentence length and structure, sensory detail, endings (not just of whole pieces, but of paragraphs or even sentences), strong verbs, and “weeding the garden” of clutter (113). He also illustrates the revision process with an evolving piece of writing in which clarity emerges like sunshine.

It takes time to build a garden, perfect a recipe, raise a child. Why then would we think revision would be simple or fast? It too takes patience, effort, awareness, a willingness to step back periodically to regain perspective, and the courage to move in close enough to spot even the tiniest flaws. If we expect perfection too soon, we are likely to discover that “It ain’t bourbon yet” (97). And that’s the title of what has to be my favorite chapter in the book. You have to love a writer who discovers connections where you might not even think to look for them. Who but writer, teacher, and witty philosopher Tom Romano would link the making of bourbon to the writing process? He explains the painstaking steps required to distill this popular American brew, including endless assessments: watching, sniffing, and tasting. As he discovers, a premature sip only yields disappointment. But give that frothy concoction some time and a tender, loving tweak or two, and voila. You have something to take pride in, something worth bottling and sharing.

As if that weren’t enough . . . I’ve only begun to explore the numerous topics and suggestions Tom Romano offers in this entertaining and practical handbook. You’ll also find Tom’s thoughts on—

  • Sketching as prewriting
  • Using metaphor to clarify meaning
  • Ordering information
  • Embracing parallel structure
  • Surprising the reader
  • Nurturing voice over time

And one thing more: grit. In one of the most engaging Acknowledgments sections ever (133-135), Romano tells us that “Writing and publishing Write What Matters was a lot like hiking the trail in Kauai that wasn’t listed on the map: initially slow and messy, walking down an abandoned road overhung with dense foliage” (133). It required researching, reading, writing, revising, more revising, sharing, hoping—and looking for a publisher. Tom didn’t find one. Let me say that I can’t think when anything has surprised me more. I would buy anything Tom Romano wrote because I trust his thinking—and I’m hooked on writing that rings with voice, as his inevitably does. I’m sure many writing teachers out there share my perspective. What matters in this case, however, is that he didn’t give up. Encouraged by colleagues and friends, he decided to “bypass the naysayers and self-publish” (135). Bravo, Tom.

Do likewise. Believe in your message, too. “Trust language. Write what matters. You’ll move through sunlight” (132).

About the Author . . .
Tom Romano earned his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire. He taught high school for seventeen years, and currently teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Tom claims to have “caught the writing bug in seventh grade,” and has been writing ever since. He is the author of several best-selling, highly acclaimed books on writing, including Crafting Authentic Voice, Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers, Writing: Teaching and Learning, and Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. In addition, he’s written a memoir titled Zigzag: A Life of Reading and Writing, Teaching and Learning. Tom likes to start his classes by reading a poem, and insists that his college students write in multiple genres, and not focus exclusively on expository essays. Visit Tom online at

http://www.users.miamioh.edu/romanots/Tom_Romano.html

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
First—a reminder! Our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision (co-authored by Sneed B. Collard III) is now available for purchase both online and through our publisher:


http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx (price: $26.50)

This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional nonfiction author—Sneed! For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Animal Dads, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (several of which I’ve reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

A seasoned, imaginative writer, Sneed knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. In Teaching Nonfiction Revision, he details the tips and strategies that have won him numerous writing awards and made his books best sellers.

I had the fun of translating Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. You’ll find engaging activities, strategies, suggestions on what to say in a one-on-one conference, writing secrets to share with students—and more. Many lessons and tips are down-loadable to make teaching easy and convenient. We’re confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable addition to your professional collection.

Many thanks to my colleague and former co-author Jeff Hicks (Write Traits Classroom Kits) for his incredible review—posted recently right here on sixtraitgurus. If Jeff can’t convince you to buy this book, no one can.

Gurus will be in hiatus for a few weeks as I travel to Sydney, Australia. After returning, I’ll have several new books to review.

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

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Teaching Nonfiction Revision

Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons, by Sneed B. Collard III and Vicki Spandel. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 223 pages.

Available for pre-order/order:

http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: 4th-8th grade (Though that’s the target grade levels, this book’s ideas, concepts, and tips are easily adaptable for K-12 and beyond.)

Features: Table of contents (Big deal, right? Every book like this has one. Wrong! This one reads like a lesson planning guide for your classroom! Much more on this later.), Lessons, strategies, and examples from both student writers and from Sneed’s own nonfiction books, Recurring pop-up sections—In Conference, A Note to the Teacher, A Writing Secret to Share with Students, Something to Try—filled with practice exercises and advice directly from Vicki Spandel, Appendix A: Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers, Appendix B: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Students, Appendix C: Recommended Nonfiction Books for Adults, References, and Online resources specific to this book available for download from www.heinemann.com

Introduction

With a name like Sneed B. Collard III, he better be good, right? Absolutely right! A book about nonfiction revision from such a skilled, experienced writer of nonfiction? I’ve been reading and recommending his books for over twenty years. So, sign me up! But wait (and at the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial)—there’s more, so much more. With Teaching Nonfiction Revision, you get all of Sneed’s nonfiction-writer-wisdom, the real inside scoop on his process as a writer, AND the added bonus of writing guru-teacher whisperer Vicki Spandel’s classroom insight popping up at just the right moments, practically answering your questions before you can even ask them. I’ve known Vicki Spandel, and had the pleasure to work with her, for close to thirty years. So, it’s a done deal–double-sign me up!

Just in case, before I launch into a few of the highlights Teaching Nonfiction Revision has to offer, you’re already pumped up and ready to buy, I’ll repeat the pre-order/order information:

http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

(Now I do sound like an infomercial.)

One of my favorite things about this book is that Mr. Collard never tries to sugarcoat the truth about the act of revision: Revision is not always easy or fast. And, as you may already have experienced, revision, for many student writers, is a total mystery. He addresses the struggle students have with revision, using a sample of student writing, in the book’s introduction–when the page numbers are still Roman numerals! “Not knowing what else to do, students plug in extra facts, make sentences longer, fix spelling, change fonts, swap one word for another—or maybe insert an adjective, adverb, or exclamation mark for emphasis.” (xiv) I’m sure that “revision” of this type is something you’ve experienced in your own classroom. I’ve had middle school students take an even more direct route by simply printing two copies of their writing, labeling one “Rough” and the other “Final.” Boom! Done! The purpose behind this book is to remove this cloud of mystery, not with any magic words or spells but with “…nuts-and-bolts teaching strategies design to strengthen students’ nonfiction revision skills.” (xv) There are no promises of instant success, but these strategies offer a “Big” to “Small” path to understanding and application. “Students may not master every strategy on the first try, but they will make huge strides toward understanding the revision process. Given practice, they will write words you will actually look forward to reading.” (xv)

The passion both Sneed and Vicki have for their craft and for sharing it with teachers and students is the energy blowing away any clouds of mystery or misunderstanding about revision. Their voices are distinct and comforting—they write from and about real experiences. And that’s one of my other favorite things about Teaching Nonfiction Revision (there are many). The authors make it clear that a fuller understanding of the process of revision supported by the toolbox full of strategies this book provides, opens the door to happy, even joyful times for student writers and their teachers. Sneed lets readers in on his secret—revision is not only important work, it’s downright fun! Let me now share with you a few of my other favorite parts and features of Sneed and Vicki’s new book.

Table of Contents (Seriously)

I’m retired, so I am no longer an every day teacher with my own students. The classroom still calls to me, so I get my fix by substitute teaching and volunteering–exclusively at my neighborhood elementary and middle school, with teachers I know and with advance notice. Going back to the same classrooms means I get to know the students, even if I’m only in front of them now and then. You might think that I walk in empty handed and simply follow the regular teacher’s plans, but I can’t help myself. I bring in books, student writing samples, and ready-to-go, focused writing activities—just in case. I want the teachers to leave me plans, but I always ask if it’s OK if I slip in an activity involving writing, especially if it would support something currently happening in the classroom. And they always say, “Yes!”

When I first picked up Teaching Nonfiction Revision, my plan was to give it a quick read to get a feel for Sneed and Vicki’s message. My plans changed as soon as I read the Introduction (something I like to do first) then took a look at the Table of Contents. The book is divided into seven parts: I: Setting the Stage, II: Big-Picture Revision, III: Scene Revision, IV: Paragraph Revision, V: Sentence Revision, VI: Word Revision, VII: The Final Wrap. I immediately grabbed a pad, pen and highlighter, and slipped into teacher-mode. Not substitute teacher mode but every-day-teacher mindset! I mentally superimposed a school calendar over the seven parts and the breakdown of topics in each section and began planning. I couldn’t help myself. It was as if the authors had asked me personally about my teaching experiences—what my students might come in believing about writing and revision, what I knew students needed, what questions I would ask, my personal struggles as a writing teacher, where and when I might say, “What about…?” Here’s one example of what got me excited—the subheadings from Part II: Big-Picture Revision:

  1. Isolate Your Main Idea
  2. Research Your Topic—Again!
  3. Add Missing Information
  4. Cut, Cut, Cut!
  5. Check Your Organization
  6. Unleash Your Voice!
  7. End With Something to Say
  8. Give It a Rest

I sadly reminded myself, “Hey! You don’t have a classroom!” so I switched mental gears. As a substitute, I have been in classrooms where, at various times, students needed help with each of these items. I couldn’t wait to mine these sections for their golden strategies to turn into booster-shot lessons to carry with me into any classroom. My temptation was to skip ahead to various sections, but I resisted. It’s something you could easily do, but I recommend a complete front to back read. This way you’ll get a feel for the overall process of revision and an appreciation for the beauty behind organizing the book’s strategies from “big” to “small.” As the authors say, “Whether you are a regular classroom teacher, a literacy specialist, or a writer yourself, this is your book, and we know you’ll figure out the best way to use it.” (xv)

Appendices and References—Take a Look Before You Read

Teaching Nonfiction Revision, as you will see, has three appendices—A, B, and C. Appendix A—“Checklist of Revision Possibilities for Nonfiction Writers”—is a starter list of revision reminders, “…things you might do when revising.” (207) I appreciate that it’s a list, not a formula or set of boxes to be ticked off in order. As you and your students do more nonfiction writing and revising, the authors encourage you to “…add your own ideas to ours.” (207) I do suggest you read the checklist before you dive into the book. Not only will it activate and alert your subconscious to what’s coming, it will give you the opportunity to reflect on your own revision practices, “Hey! I do that, too!” Very comforting!

Appendices B-“Nonfiction Books for Students”—and C—“Nonfiction Books for Adults”—are loaded with book recommendations for you and students of all grade levels. (Books by a certain Sneed B. Collard, III, are included and highly recommended!) Again, by taking a pre-reading look at the titles, you may find some that already know and love. Again, rather comforting!

The “References” section, is included for your additional comfort. Here is proof that Sneed and Vicki have mined not only their own work and experiences, they’ve tapped into the writing of other experts as well.

Online Resources—Just Look for the Icon

Anytime you see the icon in the margin, you will know that there is an online resource available to help you bring a specific lesson or activity into your classroom. All you have to do is follow the directions at the end of the Table of Contents to create an account at Heinemann.com and register your book (once you’ve purchased it). This access will allow you to duplicate or project writing activities for your students. Very handy!

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Trait-Based Writing and Revision

The Six Traits of Writing and trait-based writing instruction is the well from which my career as a writing teacher, presenter, and co-author was drawn. The language of the traits—ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions—in my mind, is the vocabulary of writers. It connects and integrates varied approaches to writing instruction and writing as a process. The language provides a specific feedback loop for readers and writers, students, teachers, and parents to communicate about what they value in writing. And it is the language embedded in the act of revision.

Teaching Nonfiction Revision is not a book focusing on the traits exclusively. But if you’re a teacher who has “grown up,” so to speak, on trait-based writing instruction (Vicki Spandel’s Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, Write Traits Classroom Kits, Sixtraitgurus) you need to know, even if the traits are not called out, they’re all here (even Conventions) playing lead roles in the “big” to “small” revision strategies. And if you are not an experienced “Trait-er,” have no fear. This book is still for you. No secret handshakes required.

Sneed—Modeling Revision (and Struggling) Through His Own Writing

If by chance you are not familiar with any of Sneed’s body of published works (80 + titles), Teaching Nonfiction Revision will not only introduce you to many of them, it will give you (and your students) a backstage pass to his writing and revision processes. Sneed uses his own writing—actual examples of drafts to model and introduce revision strategies he uses to hone his work. In the “Unleash Your Voice!” section of Part II, Sneed points out that, “…writers have to learn to recognize what kind of voice matches their subject and intent for a passage. Do they want to be funny? Dramatic? Conversational? Precise? Persuasive?” (51) This is such an important element of helping nurture voice in student writers—aligning voice with purpose and audience. He references a particular moment in his book, Hopping Ahead of Climate of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival (2016) where he struggled with this decision. In a passage at the beginning of the book, he describes an owl and hare, hunter vs. the hunted, in the ultimate predator/prey moment. Sneed lets us know what he was thinking, “I had to ask myself, ‘How do I write about this?’” (52) He shows readers two of the many options he considered, including his final choice, each with a very different voice. What was the deciding factor? Purpose! His decision wasn’t based on word count or whatever idea first popped into his head. He needed to stay true to his “subject and intent.” What a great lesson and discussion for student writers!

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Later in the book, when the “big” to “small” revision lens has zoomed in on paragraphs in Part IV, Sneed returns to the owl and hare passage in Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, to share another revision struggle (no sugar coating) he faced. “To wrap up the passage, I wanted a sentence that emphasized how ominous this situation is for the species—but without getting hysterical about it.” (170) He shows readers six of the twenty-plus variations” he tried, before revealing and reflecting on his final choice. (He tried at least twenty different variations of the same wrap-up sentence! 20!) “You’ll notice that to reach my goal, I tried myriad ideas and phrasing…Did I arrive at the best solution? I may never know for sure, but I do know that the struggle of trying brought me closer to what I wanted.” (171) This is a powerful message to students and teachers: Writing and revising is not easy or fast, but delivering your message (“subject and intent”) to readers is important and worthy of your best effort.

Vicki—Pep Talks, Tips, and Ideas for the Classroom

Dovetailing perfectly with Sneed’s strategies, Vicki’s appearances in Teaching Nonfiction Revision come in the form of four rotating pop-ins: Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students. Her presence is like an omniscient advice columnist who responds to your letters before you write them.

Dear Vicki—Bam! Here’s that book title you were going to ask for.

Dear Vick—Wham! Sentence fragments, right? Try this the next time you conference with her.

Dear Vi—Kabam! I’ve got your back—the perfect mini-lesson to kick-start your writer’s workshop.

When Sneed is wrangling with finding the appropriate voice (owl and hare example mentioned above), Vicki appears with a Something to Try called “De-Voicing a Passage.” She offers a short passage from Sneed’s book Pocket Babies and other Amazing Marsupials, for students to rewrite, without changing the passage’s meaning but “…bleeding as much voice out of it as possible.” (52) Discussing and listing the changes students made helps them gain a deeper understanding of what contributes to voice. (And asking students to write without voice is flat out fun!) If they know what to remove to suck the life out of a piece of writing, they’ll get better at knowing what to put in to breathe life into their writing.

What Vicki suggests with each aptly named Something to Try, A Note to the Teacher, In Conference, and A Writing Secret to Share With Students, are a combination of small, focused activities and practices that might be introduced as a mini-lesson or become an every-time-I-revise tool in your student writers’ toolboxes, alongside timely suggestions to gently guide you and your student revisers.

Final Comments

Sneed and Vicki open Part VII: “The Final Wrap,” with a reminder to readers, “…we have never intended this book to be a rigid regimen to be pursued with Navy SEAL-like determination…Sure, you may wish to incorporate every one of our strategies into your classroom, but…it’s more likely that you will pick and choose those you find most helpful.” (201-202) That’s my suggestion as well. I’ve only scratched the surface of what this book has to offer. It’s not a long book, but there’s a lot to pick and choose from to help you and your students become more confident writers and revisers. With Sneed and Vicki’s help, the act of revision loses its veil of mystery, and “With your encouragement and guidance, many students will discover the joy of turning their first rough ideas into something readers cannot put down.” (206) Imagine that! And with Sneed and Vicki’s encouragement and guidance you might discover (or rediscover) the joy of Teaching Nonfiction Revision.

As always, you can find Vicki here at www.sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com

For more about Sneed and his books: www.sneedbcollardiii.com

Coming up on Gurus…

I’m not exactly sure what Vicki is working on next. Perhaps something to kick off the new school year? (Yes, in case you haven’t noticed the back-to-school ads—which started in June, a new school year is just around the corner.) Actually, I think reading Teaching Nonfiction Revision, would be an excellent way to rev your teacher-engines. As always, thanks for visiting. And come back soon! Give every child a voice.

 

 

 


Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery. 2017. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Illustrated nonfiction chapter book.
Levels: Grade 4 through adult.
Features: Outstanding illustrations from the wild habitat of the Amazon rainforest, intriguing details backed by impressive firsthand field research, selected bibliography and index. Length: 67 pages, excluding back matter.

 

Overview
To say Sy Montgomery is a master of nonfiction is an understatement. Not only is her writing brilliant—at times poetic—but Sy’s incredible research always yields memorable details I can’t get out of my head. Like these . . .

Did you know that as many as 500 species can be found on a single flower from the Amazon? Or that the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world” because it provides a staggering one fifth of the world’s oxygen? Or that a new species is discovered in the Amazon every three days? That’s only a sampling of what you can expect to learn about this exotic place where “life piles upon life” (12).

I’ll admit it. Previous books I’d read about the Amazon wilderness left me with a haunting sense of dread. An environment that’s home to giant anacondas (up to 300 pounds), fearsome piranhas, and the biggest alligators on earth, the black caimans, didn’t sound like anywhere I’d set up camp voluntarily. Now I feel my perceptions shifting. Though Montgomery never discounts the dangers, her book provides a balanced view, mixing the undeniable danger with a true vision of Eden—an elusive and endangered paradise worthy of our reverence and protection.

As we learn from Montgomery’s words and Keith Ellenbogen’s photos, Eden has some unusual inhabitants: pink dolphins, for instance, thought by some natives to have the power of transforming themselves into humans. And then there’s the Goliath birdeater, a tarantula that weighs in at a quarter pound and has a leg span long enough to cover your face—not that you’d want to check that out.

Center stage, however, goes to the tiny, gorgeous fish—tetra, cichlids and others—sought by aquarium enthusiasts throughout the world. They grow in abundance here, and flourish during the rainy season, when water rises so high that students take boats to school. “Then, in the dry season,” Montgomery tells us, “ . . . the water level drops—sometimes more than thirty feet. Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” (5). Ninety percent. Think about that. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to pluck these small natives from Utopia just to satisfy some aquarist’s whim, just the opposite is true. If we don’t buy them, they die. And the local fishers, called piabieros, must find some other way to earn a living. Cattle ranching. Mining. Logging. Activities that call for burning or harvesting precious forests.

Cardinal Tetra

Wait, though. Could creatures so tiny possibly play a role in saving the most expansive rainforest on the planet? Turns out they could, yes. The problem is, exporting fish is not simple. It’s a complex process rife with uncertainty.

Fish are fragile. They must be collected, tended, and then transported with the care we reserve for the most vulnerable life forms. Everything from locating these shy fish in the first place to keeping them healthy in just-right conditions offers extreme challenges. “ . . . if these creatures are to survive in the wild,” Montgomery tells us, “it’s essential that people around the world care about protecting them” (17). Reading her book is an important first step in building that level of concern.

Amazon Adventure is filled with exquisite photos that capture the surreal colors of the Amazon. Some take us to the treetops with squirrel monkeys. Some plunge us right into water that’s thick with vegetation and “so stained with natural tannins it’s as red as burgundy wine” (10). You’ll feel as if you’re snorkeling with the team of aquarists and veterinarians who’ve signed on to this adventure, hearing the cries of parrots and kingfishers overhead, trying to remain “still as sticks” so as not to scare the fish—and hoping not to panic as you wonder what just brushed against your skin.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery’s book leaves you wanting to visit the Amazon for yourself, or, at the very least, create your own aquarium sanctuary for cardinal tetras. You’ll want to be sure your new pet is from the wild, not farm raised. That way, you could be helping to save the rainforest that literally keeps us breathing.

In the Classroom

1.Sharing the book. Reading the book to yourself first will help you settle on a purpose for sharing: (1) to illustrate fine nonfiction writing that offers both engaging voice and rich content, (2) to inspire students to read the rest of the book on their own, or (3) to encourage further exploration of the book’s primary topics, including the Amazon rainforest, acquisition of aquarium fish, or set-up and maintenance of successful aquariums.

At 67 pages, Amazon Adventure is long to read aloud in its entirety, but I would suggest reading all of Chapter 1 aloud (including “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9) as an inviting introduction, then sharing selected short passages from remaining chapters. Use a document projector to view the book’s incredible illustrations. (Don’t miss the comical selfie by photographer Keith Ellenbogen, page 20.) Following this introduction, invite interested students to finish the book on their own, or continue your discussion with a small reading group.

2. Background, Part 1: Fish and Aquariums. Ask how many of your students have (or have ever had) an aquarium. Was it fresh or salt water? Who set it up? Share some stories of preparing an aquarium and stocking it with fish. What’s required? If you have an aquarium of your own, share your experiences. Have you ever lost a fish? Have your students? If so, do you know the reason?

Ask how many students have had tetras, the primary species discussed in Amazon Adventure. Do they know what a tetra looks like? There are numerous varieties, and you can find many photos online, in addition to those in the book. Among those students who have had tropical fish, do they know if the fish were farm raised or caught in the wild? Why is it important to know?

Tip: If it’s possible to arrange a field trip to a local aquarium or pet store that features tetras, this will add enormously to students’ understanding and appreciation for this book. As an alternative—and again, if resources permit—consider setting up an aquarium in your classroom. This offers students a chance to participate in creating an environment that resembles that from which the fish came.

3. Background, Part 2: The Amazon. Start with location: Can your students identify the location and directional flow of the Amazon River? Ask them to try picturing it; then share a map of South America that shows the mighty Amazon and its tributaries. Tip: There are numerous maps of the Amazon basin online, and each provides a slightly different perspective, so view a variety of maps to truly appreciate the size, shape, and ecological impact of the region. And don’t miss the artistic rendition by Sarah Green, opposite Amazon Adventure’s Table of Contents.

Size. How large is the Amazon basin—the area through which the river and its many tributaries flow? Why does the immense size of this area matter so much to human life? This is a good time to share “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9. Compare the Amazon with any river close to your location, considering length, number of tributaries, or any other factors.

Firsthand experience? Have any of your students visited the Amazon or any of its tributaries? Have you? If so, talk about your experiences. Make a list of things you know about the region prior to reading this book and others, then add to your list as you learn more. Look up “Amazon River” online, checking out as many photos or videos as time permits. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who has been to the region, invite them to visit your class to do a short presentation and answer questions.

Further reading . . . Numerous books have been written about the Amazon and various adventures there. Have students assemble a list (looking online or working with your own media center staff) for further reading.

. . . and videos. National Geographic offers numerous videos on the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. You might choose to watch one as a class, then recommend others for students to watch on their own.

4. Nonfiction: More diverse than you think! Though it’s filled with illustrations, this is not a picture book in the traditional sense. The pictures are photos, for one thing—as opposed to the cartoons, paintings, or drawings we expect in a picture book. In addition, the book is divided into seven chapters, each running about ten pages. For these reasons, I’ve chosen to call this a nonfiction chapter book. Do your students agree with that definition?

You will also note that the book contains numerous anecdotes and biographical stories. Sometimes, as in Chapter 6, we follow the hands-on research of a scientist like Tim Miller-Morgan, who searches for parasites among captured fish that have grown listless. Chapter 3 gives us a biographical profile of aquarist Scott Dowd, who now creates eco-environments for creatures at the New England Aquarium, and is as much at home in the waters of the Rio Negro as in Boston. Chapter 5 takes us back stage as dancers prepare for the Festival of the Fish. Other stand-alone sections, like the one on tarantulas or that on ants are primarily factual.

Help your students understand that nonfiction writing at its best (as in this book) comprises several forms. To appreciate the stylistic diversity, you might read just a few paragraphs aloud from Chapter 2: Kingdom of the Cardinals, from Chapter 3: Scott’s Story, and from one of the informational inserts—on the pink dolphins (page 38), the tarantulas (page 47), or the ants (page 56). Talk about how this blend of nonfiction styles enriches our reading experience. Why do our minds enjoy writing that takes multiple forms?

Speaking of forms, how many ways does nonfiction come packaged? Make a list with your students, based on your nonfiction reading and research. Your list might include any or all of the following—

Biographies and autobiographies
• Memoirs
• Newspaper articles
• Journal articles
• Reports
• Factual summaries (the kind you might see in a museum or art gallery)
• Nonfiction picture books
• Nonfiction chapter books
• Encyclopedias
• Textbooks
• Brochures of all kinds

5. Main message: First line . . . or later? You can’t really blame Sy Montgomery for embedding the book’s main idea right in the title. I appreciate this title because it sets up an important and intriguing contrast: tiny fish versus the vast rainforest. Bam. Just like that, we’re hooked—got to read the book.

What Montgomery does not do, however—and I also appreciate this—is hammer home her main message in line one. Too often we encourage students to do that very thing. That’s one way of going about things, all right, but it’s not always the most effective, and it can lead to formulaic writing: message, support, support, support, conclusion. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Instead of conking us on the head with a thesis sentence, Montgomery opens Chapter 1 by giving us fascinating information about the Amazon. She wants us to care about this special part of the earth. Otherwise, her message won’t matter. We don’t come to the main message (title aside) until page 2:

Luckily, beneath the glassy surface of its rivers live dozens of species of tiny, beautiful fish whose powers may be even greater than those of the mysterious pink dolphin or the mighty jaguar. These shy fish . . . just might be able to save the Amazon.

Talk about this with students. Does a writer sometimes make a wise choice by waiting for the just-right moment to make his or her main point clear? Is this something they might try in their own writing?

6. Creating a powerhouse ending. This message about the mission of the tiny but mighty fish is echoed in the book’s ending (page 67), which you may want to read aloud (and contrast with the passage from page 2, quoted above). Notice that while the ending reinforces the book’s primary message, it does not restate it. The language is fresh and original—and the passage contains quite a lot of new information. What do we learn from this page about writing an effective ending?

Have students review an ending from any current piece of their own writing, asking these questions:

Does the ending reinforce or relate to my main message?
• Does it give readers new information instead of just repeating things I said before?
• Does the ending leave readers with something I want them to remember or think about?

7. Striking facts. Good details are always important or surprising—or both. As you share passages from the text, invite students to record in their writing journals any informational tidbits they find new or striking. Here are a few that captured my attention:

The Amazon is 15 miles wide at the mouth
• It has more than 1,000 tributaries
• Over 80 percent of the plants we eat are derived from plants in the Amazon basin
• Roughly 2.7 million acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed annually
• The cardinal tetra is the most popular aquarium fish in the world
• The black caiman can consume prey as large as a tapir

It’s important for students to understand that not all facts are equally important—or necessarily worth including in their writing. Have students review a piece of their own informational writing, underlining three to five details they have chosen to include. They should ask of each one—

Is this new information, not just something my readers probably know already?
• Does this detail answer a question that a curious person might ask?
• Is this information important to my topic?
• Will readers be excited or surprised to learn this?

The more yeses they can give to these questions, the stronger the detail.

8. Personalizing research. Research can start with reading books or articles—but it shouldn’t end there.

On the back book flap, we learn that author Sy Montgomery has made five other trips to the Amazon—not including the one she made to write this book. That’s dedication. How many of your students have done personal field research to prepare for a piece of writing? If they have never done this, now could be a good time to start.

A trip to the Amazon might be more than most students can take on, but countless research possibilities exist closer to home: visits to museums, aquariums, farms, places of work, theaters, art galleries, sports stadiums, and other places of interest can yield firsthand information that books alone simply cannot provide.

Students who do their own research (in addition to soaking up knowledge from experts) tend to write with more originality and confidence. They know their topics because, like Sy Montgomery, they’ve been there.

9. Voice—and the word choice connection. Voice comes in many flavors—comical, imaginative, awestruck, authoritative, chilling, sarcastic, whimsical, and more. One of the best ways to teach students about voice is by reading aloud, then having them describe what they hear.

If I had to come up with a word to describe Sy Montgomery’s voice in this book, I’d choose assured. She has a no-nonsense way of placing the truth under our noses like a good lawyer slapping down a telling piece of evidence before the jury:

“This huge, ancient rainforest is essential to the planet,” she declares in the first chapter. “Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered ‘the lungs of the world.’ Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year, mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles” (1-2).

Where does this kind of voice come from? Read the passage—or any others you like—aloud to students and ask them to describe the voice they hear, then try to put their finger on what they think contributes to that voice. Here are some things I noticed—and your students might too:

• Montgomery is unflinchingly honest, even when the message is bleak (and potential destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pretty troubling news)
• Her statements are direct and strong (she doesn’t say the rainforest is kind of important to many people—she says it’s “essential to the planet”)
• She’s confident—thanks to her hands-on research, reading, and interaction with experts
• Her word choice is impeccable—and let’s get specific about that . . .

Montgomery reminds us that the forest is huge and ancient. Who are we to destroy such a thing? It’s the lungs of the world. If we like breathing, that ought to matter to us. Words like vanish and destroy go beyond powerful. They deliver a slingshot direct hit.

As you share other voice-filled passages aloud, talk about specific words that strike a chord with us as readers. Ask students to identify other factors that contribute to voice. Have them review their own writing to identify a passage where their own conviction comes through loud and clear—and perhaps another where it does not. Can they revise to make the weaker passage more forceful?

10. Organizational genius. The book as a whole is brilliantly organized (It’s so good, in fact, that you probably didn’t even think about it), and you may wish to spend some time talking with students about that. Why? Because organization is one of the biggest challenges young writers face. Many students storm through the stage of gathering information, then look at the results the way they might eye a cluttered closet someone just asked them to straighten up.

Here’s a lesson in organization that demystifies the process and works well with a small group. (This is harder to do with a whole class unless each student has a copy of the book, but you can adapt the lesson to another, shorter piece of writing to which everyone has access.) It takes just four simple steps:

1. Help students see chapters or subsections as organizational blocks. Hold on—isn’t that obvious? You might be surprised how many students have never even thought of this. But once they see it, it makes both reading and writing easier. Have students ever divided their own writing into chapters or sections set off by subheads? If not, have them try this with any piece that runs three pages or more. It’s simpler to organize information when you take it chunk by chunk. It’s like labeling shelves or drawers.

2. Go through Montgomery’s book chapter by chapter, asking, “What’s the main message of this particular part?” For example, Chapter 1 introduces us to the Amazon, using a combination of description and fact to place us right at the scene. In Chapter 2, we go on a treasure hunt for tetras, getting right into that pristine red water, and learning how quiet we must be to let the fish approach. In Chapter 3, we get Scott’s story . . . and so on. When you finish listing the chapters and their purposes, look at this informational “map.” Why is it important for some things to come before others? Why do some pieces fit better at the end?

3. Think about what’s missing. You can be sure Sy Montgomery had more information on the Amazon and on tetras than she included in this book. The problem is, as a writer you can never share everything. It would be like bringing home each and every item from the grocery store. We have to make choices when we shop—and when we write. Montgomery doesn’t tell us what the researchers had for lunch, for example, nor does she recount every conversation. Thinking about what a writer might have omitted teaches students to separate important information from trivia. Writers always need to ask, “Do my readers need to know this? Will they care?”

4. Cut and re-order. Time for students to look at their own writing. Have them go through a current draft to identify the message of each section or chapter (or paragraph). Can anything be cut? Good! Pitching trivia is a first step toward great organization (just like cleaning the closet). Next, have them ask whether putting things in a different order would make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. For example, background information (like Montgomery’s description of the Amazon) should go right up front.

11. Organizational sleight of hand. Sy Montgomery pulled off two organizational tricks in this book that made me tip my writer’s hat. And you may want to point both out to your students.

First of all, she found a way to include information that didn’t fit neatly into one of her chapters. The sections on the seven deadly plagues (page 18), pink dolphins (page 38), tarantulas (page 47), and ants (page 56) would have interrupted her narrative flow about finding, preserving, and shipping tropical fish. Yet, this was not information Montgomery wanted to omit. So, what to do?

Answer: Give these topics their own space apart from the main text. Don’t you love it? This strategy is highly effective because it gives us, as readers, a little break in the ongoing rhythm of the book. Like hearing a new song on the radio. We welcome the change of pace and we devour the horrifying (but irresistible) details: “Wrapping twenty feet of muscular coils around its prey and squeezing it to death, this giant snake [the anaconda]can eat anything it wants, including jaguars—and people” (18).

The second trick is even better. That anaconda you just read about is part of a section called “Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon—In the Dark.” Why the dark? Because these seven deadly creatures are often under the water, invisible to unsuspecting waders, swimmers, or snorkelers. The “plagues” include the stingray, the giant catfish, the piranha, and other creatures most of us aren’t eager to meet in person. (No wonder our adventurers shudder when something bumps a leg or arm!) But—Montgomery has a surprise in store . . .

Just a few pages later (27-29), we’re treated to “The Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon Debunked (Sort Of).” What??!! In this section Montgomery pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind each myth. Maybe these critters aren’t quite as deadly as we’ve been led to believe. Take the anaconda. We learn that although these big snakes are capable of eating people, there are no documented cases of this happening. Ever. See? Now you can relax on your next jungle hike.

I love surprises, so have to say, I enjoyed that gotcha moment. Well played.

12. Further research—and argument. Montgomery’s book raises many possibilities for further research on such topics as—
Mining, ranching, and forestry in the Amazon region
• Preservation of the Amazon and other rainforests
• The role of this or any rainforest in preserving life on earth
• Predictions for the future of the Amazon rainforest
• Impact of economic advancement on indigenous people of the Amazon
• History of the Amazon region
• Famous explorers (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt) who have visited the Amazon
• Impact of Amazon species on modern medicine
• Rate at which new species are discovered

Any of these or dozens of related topics make outstanding subjects for further informational writing. In addition, the book touches on many issues that affect our lives. Students might consider any of the following topics as a basis for argument writing—and likely they will think of others on their own:

How important is it to stop or slow down deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
• Is tourism a boon to the rainforest economy—or a threat to the ecosystem?
• To what degree are we here in the U.S. affected by this rainforest so far away?
• Should people be free to use the resources of the Amazon as they see fit?
• Should tropical fish like the cardinal tetras be farm raised—or taken from the wild?
• Does the simple act of buying a tetra caught in the wild truly influence the future of the world’s biggest rainforest?
• Can the Amazon recover from damage already done?

 

About the Author . . .

Visit Sy Montgomery’s home page, and you’ll discover she has been chased by a silverback gorilla, “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo,” bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, and embraced by a Giant Pacific Octopus. Her daring research throughout the world has led her to write numerous books for young readers as well as adults, including three of my personal favorites: Birdology, The Soul of an Octopus (a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. The Good, Good Pig is an international bestseller and a book I’ve given as a gift countless times.
Sy is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Build Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (from the ASPCA for Humane Education) and numerous other honors. Her work with man-eating tigers, subject of her book Spell of the Tiger, was made into a National Geographic documentary that Sy both scripted and narrated.
A graduate of Syracuse University, Sy Montgomery has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and universities. The New York Times described Sy as “equal parts poet and scientist.” The Boston Globe called her “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

To learn more about Sy and her books, please visit symontgomery.com and bluereef.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
I’m delighted to announce that our new book, Teaching Nonfiction Revision, co-authored with best-selling nonfiction writer Sneed Collard, has gone to press. It’s due for release August 31, and is available for pre-order from Heinemann now:
http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Sneed and I had enormous fun writing this book. Our goal was to make revision both fun and productive for students in grades 4 through 8–and beyond! It’s adaptable for nonfiction writers of any age. Lessons and strategies are based on Sneed’s extensive experience as a successful writer of nonfiction, complemented by my own work as a teacher, writer, editor, and journalist. As you can likely tell from the cover, it’s light and fun–and we hope you’ll love it!

Sneed on Assignment

My friend, colleague, and frequent co-author Jeff Hicks will review the book in our very next post. Jeff brings his considerable expertise as a teacher and writer to bear–and I cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you, Jeff. Until next time . . . Give every child a voice.


 


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

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

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

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

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

And happy, happy Fourth of July.


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

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

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

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

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

 

Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In the Classroom

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author . . .

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

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

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

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

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vicki_jeff_small

 

drowned-city

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

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

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

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

 

Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

drowned-city-2

 

In the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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About Author Don Brown . . .

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

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

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

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re BACK!

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

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

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

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Still Writing2

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. 2013. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 227 pages.

Genre: Memoir, commentary on writing

Ages: This book is written for adults, but includes numerous passages that can be shared with writers of about age 10 and up.

Summary

Shapiro’s book is a down to earth tour of real world writing process. This is not the neatly packaged, plastic version publishers want to sell you so you’ll be ready for the latest test. Here we get authenticity and insight from someone who writes for a living, who writes all the time, who lives to write—and loves it. Oh—and who is very, very good at it. The language is rich and vibrant, the sentences clear and elegant. It’s a refreshingly honest, eminently quotable book, an inside look at how writing really works.

Still Writing is written neither for nor to the classroom writing teacher, which in some respects renders it even more of a treasure because it doesn’t rehash messages we’ve heard before. It’s fresh, written from a new perspective. This book is one hundred percent free of educational jargon. It contains no reconstituted mini-lessons or tips for managing conferences with limited time. Instead, within each chapter you’ll find gems of wisdom about writing, wisdom you can share with students to help them understand that things they have felt—fear, rejection, lack of inspiration, the irresistible impulse to procrastinate (yet again)—are experienced by writers everywhere. And though these things have to be confronted, they’re far from fatal. In fact, they’re normal. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore them.

Don’t get the idea that this is a maudlin portrait of just how rough a writer’s life can be. Anything but. On the contrary, Shapiro makes the life of a writer sound energizing, satisfying, and filled with surprises—though anything but easy (or, usually, lucrative). She doesn’t sugarcoat the need for hard work and plenty of it. And she offers substantive advice for allowing nothing to get in the way. Get up to make a phone call, do the dishes, check your email, or look out the window, and poof, those thoughts that were just about to reveal themselves in your mind may well take off forever. Shapiro helps us understand that writing takes discipline, courage, perseverance, focus, and sheer will. Above all, it requires curiosity, love of reading, and a knack for noticing the world around us. For those willing to commit, though, writing holds rewards nothing else can offer.

The book has no table of contents. This is a shame, first because the chapter titles are whimsically charming, and second because there are numerous chapters to which I’ll want to return—and a good TOC always makes a book a bit easier to navigate. Most chapters run only a page or two, making it possible to read the whole book in stolen moments here and there, or re-read a whole chapter to begin your own writing day. Here’s a random sample of chapters that are favorites for me: Scars, Inner Censor, A Room of One’s Own, Reading, The Blank Page, Habit, Audience of One, What You Know?, Bad Days, Building the Boat (four short paragraphs etched in my memory), Courage, Structure, Dumb, Character, Next, and the concluding chapter, Still Writing. I could list more, but already someone is saying, “Why doesn’t she just list them all?” I could—easily (the book has no slow parts)—but I’m trying to keep it to those chapters I already plan to return to this week.

Advice on writing is deftly blended with Shapiro’s own personal stories of growing up in a traditional Jewish home as the only child of hovering, Orthodox parents, then losing her father and surviving a complex relationship with her mother. There is no running from who we are, she tells us. This is what it truly means to “write what we know”—to write from our innermost selves and draw from all the wisdom our unique experience has given us. And though we may not always be successful, we will learn to “fail better” (Introduction, p. 4).

The book sits on my desk where it’s easy to reach, and is already well marked with highlighter and pen. It has a few Post-It™ notes poking out the top as well. It already looks well used and loved, and that surely is the sign of a good book. Though I’ve read and re-read extensively, I’d rather buy someone a new copy than lend them mine. How often have you felt like that?

Like a good poem, Shapiro’s book is deceptively tiny. It looks (and feels) small, and you can read it in one night. Yet each time you return to it, it reveals something new, something you didn’t even notice the first time. This book encompasses (and inspires) so many thoughts and connections that in the end, the only sensible thing to say is, “You need to read this for yourself.” To give you a flavor of the book, though, here are a handful of moments that stand out for me, many of which you might share with young writers.

Memorable Moments

  1. The list of don’ts. Writers are full of excuses—they’re busy, tired, not feeling up to par. Or it’s too hot, cold, drafty, noisy, quiet, yada, yada. In the chapter called Riding the Wave, Shapiro lists a number of things NOT to do when you sit down to write: “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination” (p. 10). Sound familiar? Of course. All writers procrastinate; for some, it’s an art form. You might share this chapter or some portion of it with your students, and brainstorm two lists: things writers do to procrastinate, and things we can do to get ourselves moving again.
  2. Dispelling your inner critic. Most writers know the voice of that inner critic who is never really pleased with anything we do. Maybe it’s your mother’s voice, or some long-ago teacher—or your editor. In the chapter titled Inner Censor, Shapiro reveals some of the things her critic likes to lay on her: “This is stupid,” “What a waste of time,” “What a dumb idea,” and other equally disparaging comments (p. 13). Discussion of the inner critic is a good one to have with students because few things are more inhibiting than having your work dismissed as fast as you can put it on the page. Shapiro refers to her critic as a “toxic little troll” (p. 14), one she can put in her place only by continually reinforcing belief in her ability to enter “that sacred space from which the work springs” (p. 15). What sorts of things do your students’ critics whisper in their ears? Make a list. It’s surprising how shedding a little light on these nasty criticisms can weaken their power.
  3. Building one corner of the puzzle. How many times have you heard students say, “I don’t know how to begin”? Try this. Instead of writing one day, pass out jigsaw puzzles and have students work on them in groups—just for a few minutes. They don’t need to finish. Then talk about strategy. What did they do first? Chances are, many started with the corner pieces. In the chapter called Corner, Dani Shapiro suggests that this logical and simple way of solving puzzles has something important in common with writing. As writers, we need to start small, too. The idea is to get one “corner” on the page in recognizable form—then build on it: “One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next” (p. 17).
  4. The magic of books. Do you read as you write? Before you write? For many writers, this is like saying, “Do you breathe as you write?” Most of our inspiration (save what we get from experience) comes from books. On my own shelf right now I have One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson, The MOST of Nora Ephron, and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. None of these is a book about writing, but every one of them teaches me more about writing than I can get from almost any handbook or textbook out there. Just to offer one tiny example, Bill Bryson is a master of transitions. This probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Bryson (How about humor? Research?), but the way he links ideas together is worth more than a passing look. Writers must read. It’s essential. And think how much is gained by discussions of literature as writing, by looking at the craft of the writer, in addition to theme and content. Shapiro puts it this way: “When I meet someone who wants to be a writer, and yet doesn’t read much, I wonder how that works. What would provide you with nourishment, with inspiration?” (p. 33). Ask your students which writers inspire them. Which ones provide them nourishment? And specifically, what do they learn as writers from their literary mentors?
  5. Writing to someone. Mem Fox (author of one of my favorite books, Radical Reflections) has long talked about “The Watcher,” that mysterious someone we picture in our minds as we write. I’ve long embraced this idea, and my list of “watchers” rotates to include colleagues like Jeff Hicks and Sally Shore or Darle Fearl, along with my daughter Nikki and my grandson Jack. Rotating is fine, but if we try to write to too many people at once, Shapiro advises, “It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, no one meeting each other’s eyes, just waiting for the doors to open” (p. 54). She suggests following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and writing “for an audience of one” (54). Discuss this with students, and give them time to reflect on who their particular “audience of one” might be. It doesn’t always need to be the same person. Fiction and informational writing are very different, and may demand different audiences. The point is to choose someone appreciative. Writing to an audience truly is transformational because it makes the writing personal, almost like a letter. This doesn’t mean for a moment that you cannot write with a formal style. It does, however, make it much harder to be phony or affected, to generalize, to wander off the topic, to use words you don’t know, or to write in a sloppy manner and call it good enough. After all, someone you care about is on the receiving end.
  6. Breaking the rules. Every good writing teacher I’ve ever known (and it’s a big group) has talked about “breaking the rules.” But most add a caveat—“Be sure you know the rules first!” Well . . . yes. Sure. But that caveat makes rule breaking sound like a plot: Learn the rules so you can plan to break them. That’s not how it works at all. Breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them is no different from following them for the sake of following them. The rule isn’t the point. The point is to be true to yourself and your vision. In What You Know?, Shapiro offers this advice: “You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fall” (p. 71). We have to tread lightly here, though. We don’t want to tell our students to get busy breaking rules and see how that works. A better way of helping them appreciate both the rules and the deviations is to have them look in their favorite literature for examples of when and how our best writers break from tradition. Can they find examples of abandoned punctuation? Missing capitals? Repetition? Fragments? One-sentence or one-word paragraphs? Why do these instances of rule breaking sometimes work so well? And why wouldn’t they work all the time? (Check out the chapter Breaking the Rules, 151ff., for more wisdom on this topic.)
  7. Sharing our writing. Some students cannot wait to share their writing aloud—with a partner, in a small group, with the whole class. Whatever. They live for the spotlight. But for many, it’s downright terrifying—as indeed it is for countless adult writers, including experienced, published professionals. Sweaty palms, shaking hands, cracking voices, and rapid heartbeats are all part of the misery of taking writing public if it’s not your thing. One of the problems in the classroom is that for the most part, you don’t get to pick your audience. It’s hard to work around this, granted, but maybe we should at least think about it. In her chapter Trust, Shapiro talks about the importance of choosing wisely when we decide to share our writing with someone. Writers are highly vulnerable, she cautions. Damage can be done. We don’t want listeners who are indifferent, rude, hostile, or inattentive (p. 98). She offers this advice: “Ask yourself: Why this person? Will she treat my manuscript with respect? Read it with close attention?” Perhaps we can’t allow students total freedom of choice about their audience, but we can encourage students (and ourselves) to be the most sensitive listeners possible—to offer comments that show we are paying attention and that we care about the writer. Talk with your students about this: What kinds of comments are genuinely helpful to them? What can we do, as listeners, to foster trust in the writers who share their very important work with us?
  8. Structure. Dani Shapiro is no fan of outlines. This in itself is enough to make her my hero. Outlines, she explains, create an “illusion” of control (p. 114). Precisely. Non-writers (some of whom are sneaky enough to become consultants or assessors of writing) are forever wanting the rest of us to plan our writing in advance, then follow our outlines from first to final sentence as if those outlines now controlled us, rather than the reverse. Who on earth came up with this idea? The most magical part of writing lies in not knowing what will happen. Everything from character to plot to need for further research reveals itself not in advance, but during the act of writing. And so it is with structure. Here is one of my favorite quotations from the book: “Structure may emerge in the middle, may even announce itself once we’re in over our heads, in the thick of it, having relinquished control. Then, then, the architecture begins to whisper to us” (p. 115).
  9. Taking care of yourself. I think this may be the only book on writing I have read (other than perhaps Anne Lamott’s legendary Bird by Bird) in which the author makes a point of telling writers to be good to themselves—to seek out kind critics, eat right, get enough sleep, be patient with themselves and with the writing as it evolves, find a good and comfortable place in which to compose, and engage in something Shapiro calls “quiet contemplation,” a lovely expression. “Quiet contemplation,” she tells us, “will lead you to riches, so keep good literature on your bedside table and read for a few minutes before you go to sleep instead of, say, passing out during episode five of season three of Mad Men” (p. 208).  I think this is some of the most excellent advice on writing I’ve ever come across. I would not, of course, have been able to follow it while watching the final season of Breaking Bad, but still . . .
  10. Still Writing. This, the title of the book, is also the title of the final chapter. And if I had to pick just one chapter as my favorite, much as I love the others, this would have to be it. The message is so important: that writing, the need to write and the desire to write, is internal and forever. Like most writers, Shapiro is often asked whether she is still writing. Though she admits that she usually nods politely and changes the subject, page 227 contains the response she would like to give. It is passionate—and beautiful. It begins, “Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason.” Better than anything I have ever read, this page captures how it feels to be a writer. And lucky me—since this book will be on my desk for as long as I have a desk, I can read it every day. Anne Lamott once said (Bird by Bird, p. 15), “My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” I’m grateful for Shapiro’s book in just this way, especially given its encouraging, soul satisfying philosophy: Success sometimes feels out of reach, but “failing better”? Now there’s a standard we can meet.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and fans. We are thankful for you, and we thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll find time to read Dani Shapiro’s magnificent little book, and that you’ll find many ways to share its inspiration with your students. If you have other writers in your life, this book would make an extraordinary gift.

Coming up after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll look at things you can do in your classroom to prepare for the Common Core writing assessments.

Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.