In a previous post, I questioned a question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This question is part of an assessment in Teacher College Reading Units of Study in Grade 3. But many of the elementary texts that students can read independently at that grade level do not contain a character change at all. Why ask this question as an assessment if the ELA Common Core State Standards do not address character change until grade 6?

By definition, change denotes a making or becoming distinctly different and implies a radical transmutation of character. In literary terms, those characters that do change are called dynamic characters.

A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character’s change can be extreme or subtle, as long as his or her development is important to the book’s plot or themes.

Of course, the language in this literary definition of a dynamic character is too high for elementary students K-3. There are also few characters that students encounter in reading grade level texts with “substantial” internal changes, subtle or otherwise.

But what many elementary texts, especially picture books, do show are characters that learn. The novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) has commented on creating characters that “increase in wisdom”:

“There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters.” 

Readers of his novel A Clockwork Orange would credit Burgess as a master in crafting a character (Alex) who undergoes a moral transformation.  But his suggestion that a character can have “an increase in wisdom” is a good explanation of what younger students should look for in the elementary texts they can read.

For example, there is an increase in wisdom seen in Alexander in Alexander and the TerribleHorrible, No Good, Very Bad Day who concludes that there are just bad days…even in Australia. Many picture books serve as examples where the chief character experiences an increase in wisdom:

In some stories, this increase in wisdom is made obvious by a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, whether a change in feelings or opinion is the same as an increase in wisdom. For example, the character “Sam-I- am” character reverses his deeply held opinion after (finally) tasting Green Eggs and Ham. But is he wiser? One could argue that his change in opinion about a food choice is just a change in opinion, not an internal change in his character.  (Of course, the same could be said for Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Her character does not change, but her opinion of Mr. Darcy is far more favorable after she visits Pemberley!)

A direct question about what lesson was learned will also prevent students from confusing a physical change in a character with a character change.  For example, when Camilla’s love of lima beans in A Bad Case of Stripes is revealed as the cause of her colorful outward appearance, she (eventually) gains the wisdom to care less about what others think. In another physical change, the donkey Sylvester’s transformation into a rock in  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble could be read as a commentary on fate or chance because, as a rock or not, he remains Sylvester who loves his family. Students should understand that the physical changes that some characters undergo are not character changes.

There are some examples at the elementary level where the moral transformation is inferred, simplified, without “substantial internal” deliberations. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, convert from being dangerous highwaymen to generous stepfathers when the little girl Tiffany asks what will they do with their ill-gotten gains. On one page, they are bad, and on the next page, they are good. The radical change in their thinking is inferred, and the evidence of their moral transformation is in their actions, adopting unwanted children.

As students move from picture books, chapter books, and series books, they will encounter other examples of moral transformation of a character with the kind of evidence that shows “substantial internal” deliberation that Burgess referenced. Jerry Spinelli’s Crash and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy each feature a protagonist who undergoes a moral change in character.

But it also should also be noted that in the literary canon, not every novel features characters who undergo moral transformative change. Which characters really experience this kind of change in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or Catcher in the Rye? 

Ultimately, asking students “How did [the character] change? What caused this change?” in the elementary grades without laying the literary groundwork can muddy their understanding when they tackle more complex texts. Asking students a question about an increase in wisdom or “what the character learns” instead can be a better way to begin to build their understanding of what character change is, or isn’t, in the texts they can read independently not only in Grades K-3 but in Grade 4 and Grade 5 as well.  Students should be encouraged to look for a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion as evidence for an increase in wisdom. They can learn to make inferences about a character’s increase in wisdom, such as what Duncan learns about creativity in The Day the Crayons Quit.

Then, by Grade 6, they will be prepared to respond to an assessment question that is based on the CCSS standard “…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

There is, however, a bonus to discussing the shifts in a character’s feelings with K-3 elementary texts that is not always available in the upper grades. Students in elementary grades can use the illustrations in a text as evidence to support information on the differences a character may feel.  And what better evidence is there for showing all the different shifts in a character’s feelings than through the expressive illustrations of Mo Willems’ Pigeon?

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Is there evidence for a change in the Pigeon’s feelings? Certainly. But, an increase in Pigeon’s wisdom? Well, maybe.

One of the first literary elements that students understand as they begin to read is character.  They learn that a character is a person, animal, being, or thing moving the story along a plot line. Many of the characters in books they can read independently have recognizable traits:

  • The Pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is always stubborn and demanding;
  • Horrible Harry of the Horrible Harry Series is always rebellious.
  • Jack Smith of The Magic Treehouse Series is always smart and courageous.
  • Judy Moody of the Judy Moody Series is always determined and…well, moody.

The characters in series books at these elementary grade levels (K-3) are predictable. Students are able to practice reading because they are familiar with characters such as Ramona, Dog Man, Nate the Great, Captain Underpants, Amelia Bedelia, and Frog and Toad.

These characters’ thoughts and feelings may shift when they react to different problems or conflicts. But these characters do not change. They are static; they are not complex characters.

The dominance of static characters in the elementary grades can be an issue when students are faced with an assessment question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This particular question comes from the Teacher’s College Grade 3 Reading Units of Study, but other literacy programs also ask about character change.

It is important to understand that the word “change” is synonymous with a radical, transformative process. The etymology of the word change (c.1300) is “to undergo alteration, become different.” The Collins dictionary defines change as:

1. to put or take (a thing) in place of something else; substitute for, replace with, or transfer to another of a similar kind
2.  to give and receive reciprocally; exchange; switch
3. a. to cause to become different; alter; transform; convert 
    b. to undergo a variation of

The kind of change in character that matches this transformative meaning is difficult to find at the lower reading levels. A well-crafted character who “converts” or “alters” in a low-level text is unusual for any combination of reasons including choices in brevity, vocabulary, and text structure.

For most students who are reading at or below a Grade 3 reading level, there are few complex texts that they can independently read to determine a character change. Instead, the characters in the book series that are favored by students such as  Geronimo StiltonThe Boxcar Children, or Ivy and Bean, are intentionally crafted by authors so the characters remain the same while the plot or the settings change.

There are exceptions, of course. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s classic story (not film) The Grinch that Stole Christmas undergoes a transformational character change, but at the Lexile 731/level P,  the book is most often used in the classroom as a read-aloud. There are few mentor texts like the Grinch that can give students the opportunity to practice for an assessment on character change.

The limited number of stories with complex characters at the lower grade levels means that students do not have enough independent practice on their own with this concept. The leap from the predictable characters in a series (Babymouse, Henry& Mudge, Little House on the Prairie) to the kind of complex character change that is found in Maddie in Eleanor Estes The Hundred Dresses or in Jonas in Lois Lowrey’s The Giver can be a high bar for many elementary or even intermediate readers.

So, why ask students at the lower elementary levels about character change at all? The phrase “character change” does not appear in the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS) until Grade 6 when students should:

“…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

Instead, the CCSS states students in grades 3-5 should be able to:

  • describe characters (traits, motivations, or feelings) and “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events” (RL.3.3 )
  • describe character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text ( a character’s thoughts, words, or actions (RL.4.3)
  • compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (RL.5.3)

Maybe the intent of asking students at the lower elementary levels about character change is to prepare students for the complex texts they will read in the upper grades. If this is the case, there should be some consideration of what resources could be used to support this kind of character study, especially as most books in elementary reading libraries feature characters that are purposefully crafted to be static. The characters are designed to be familiar to allow students to practice fluency and accuracy. Asking students to find evidence to show a character change when there is no change is an inauthentic exercise.

There is also a danger in assessing a student’s understanding of character change too soon in their literary lives. Teachers also should be careful not to elevate what is a shift in a character’s attitude to be equal to a  change in character. Guiding elementary students to answer “character change” by using evidence that shows how a character may think or feel differently can muddy a later understanding of what character change really means.

Students should not have to answer assessment questions that ask for evidence of character change where there is none. Instead, at the lower grade levels, students should be ready to answer assessment questions that draw attention to the differences in a character’s attitude, thoughts or feelings:

  • “How did the character react to the problem?”
  • “What caused the character’s reaction?”
  • “What are the character’s thoughts and feelings now?”
  • “Does this character have a different attitude?”

Most of the books in elementary school libraries can support these kinds of questions, which are closely aligned to the ELA CCSS for grades K-5. Finding the evidence that shows a difference in a character’s attitude, thoughts, or feelings is a task that elementary students can do in both mentor texts and in their leveled reading.

Identifying a character’s shift in attitude can also help students better understand the theme or message of the book, for example:

“Yes, this is where I want to be! The Circus is the place for me.” –Put Me in the Zoo. 

“Pete, you don’t need magic sunglasses to see things in a new way! Just remember to see the good in everyday!” Pete the Cat and the Magic Sunglasses

“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”-The Story of Ferdinand

Of course, there are those iconic characters who have been designed to be so static that a question about a difference in attitude, thoughts or feelings is pointless. Just ask Max of Where the Wild Things Are.  He is still in his wolf suit when he returns home “where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” Continue Reading…

I was talking to the author Penny Kittle for several hours the other night…in my head.

Admittedly, it was a bit one-sided…she and her co-author, Kelly Gallagher were doing most of the talking. I was listening, agreeing with head nods and an occasional audible “yes” as I flipped through the pages of their recently published book 180 Days. Their new book features cross-collaborations in classrooms using book clubs and independent reading. Our conversation was one of a series that I have been having with them individually for years, beginning with Write Beside Them (Kittle), Readicide (Gallagher), through Book Love (Kittle, again), and now with 180 Days.

I have had practice in conversing with authors since I first learned to read. My leisurely discussions with Louisa May Alcott or Madeline L’Engle gave rise to exchanges, arguments, or small talk with other kinds of writers: poets, historians, journalists, biographers, researchers.

I still return to engage in a chat with Mary Shelley or to mutter a sidebar to Shakespeare. But neither of them was exiting the ladies room last Saturday at The Early Literacy Conference ….and Penny Kittle was.

Which explains why I began a conversation in media res.

“I think the daily schedules in the book are very concrete,” I commented to her, ” I know the teachers in my school appreciated seeing them.”

Penny seemed to understand. I am (hopefully? probably?) not the only educator who has greeted her in this fashion…but I didn’t stop there. In the minutes that followed, I blabbed on trying to provide a snapshot of how I was still reading and planned to use her book with other teachers.

I think I commented on teacher interest for independent reading. I remember something like “teacher buy-in.” I know I mentioned a video conference with a student on American Sniper (YouTube: What If I Haven’t Read the Book?) and heard “the movie came out later.”

The rest of the conversation is a blur, except that when it ended, I ran to my car to grab my copy of 180 Days. Finding her again, I thrust my copy for her signature; she obliged.

It is during reading when an author gets to play with your empathy neurons…how she turns a phrase, how he crafts an idea.  So meeting that author in real life is meeting someone who has shared your personal brain space.

The experience can be inspirational…OR substitute any of the following synonyms: affecting, animating, emboldening, exciting, galvanizing, heartening, impressing, motivating, provoking, spurring, stirring, swaying, touching.

AND.. awkward.

Let’s not even get started that during the conference there was an additional interaction with author/educator Bob Probst (Notice and Note, Disruptive Thinking both co-authored with Kylene Beers) who spoke about the power of a text to change a life.

Now, I do know several authors, and I am fortunate when I can spend time speaking with them or listening to them talk about their books or sharing topics outside their work.

But, to be honest, that first face-to-face experience with an author has the unfortunate effect of reducing one to fan-girl status, something generally associated with Beyonce.

The luncheon during the conference also offered time for a teacher-to-teacher tribute. Student teachers-to-be at Central Connecticut State University took time to recognize the real-life teachers who inspired them. Their personal, heartfelt recognitions were then followed by Kittle’s powerful keynote on how matching a kid with the right book can make a reader.

The only conclusion the audience could make in return is:

Educators own a brand of rock-star.

 

I have returned to reading 180 Days. I have picked up on the page where I had left off, and this time, the conversation in my head is one in which I am infinitely more poised and articulate. Penny and Kelly are setting off neurons as they explain their purposeful choices in their cross-country collaboration, and I am nodding (again) in agreement. It’s not awkward at all.

The teacher was clearing the piles of books on a back counter and a young student was helping her. No other students were in the room, and their conversation was lively, animated.

I had stopped by unannounced, to briefly touch on a curriculum matter, so I waited for a few minutes. When the teacher paused to speak to me, the girl continued the work, but she soon made it clear that I was an intruder.

“Miss?” the girl focused all her attention on the teacher.
“Miss?” she insisted, interrupting our conversation. The teacher tried to hold her off, first with a head nod….then, with a hand held up.
“Miss?” the girl persisted.

I recognized the student had no question, really.
What she was telling me was, “This is MY time with the teacher…Go away!”
I had interrupted something valuable.
I knew I had to leave.

In retrospect, I considered that what I had just witnessed may have been that student’s most important lesson of the day, an exercise that was helping to build a positive teacher/student relationship.

The research on the importance of positive teacher/student relationships is clear. Teachers and students spend 1200 hours (average 6.64 hours X 180 days) together in school annually. Every day there is an informal blend of academic and social-emotional learning. And while the time for academic learning is clearly spelled out in prescribed blocks or periods (ex: English period 2, 9:40-10:30), the time designated for developing the social-emotional learning is less so.

There are the formal strategies for developing a teacher/student relationship at any grade level, for example, conferencing with a student or using small groups. Then there are the informal ways, such the minutes spent while a teacher and her student work together and talk as they clear a counter of books. And data show those minutes pay off.

John Hattie, researcher and author of Visible Learning, analyzed the results of multiple studies. He used the results from meta-analyses to calculate a “pooled estimate” or measure of an effect on student learning. He then ranked 195 of the results according to the size of the effect.

His conclusion?  The number one influencer for student achievement is a “teacher estimates of achievement” an effect that he calculated at four times (1,62) the effect of the average influencer. Average influencers, in this case, include inquiry-based instruction (,35), computer-assisted instruction (,45), or school size (,27)

Hattie’s statement:

“It is teachers who have created positive teacher student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.”

The studies that Hattie used in his analysis indicate that the teacher’s knowledge of students in his or her classes can determine the kinds of classroom activities and materials used as well as the difficulty of the tasks assigned. The effect of a teacher’s estimate on student achievement could be felt in the student groupings used in class, as well as the kinds of questions or instructional strategies selected.

Of course, the inverse could also be true if a teacher developed a negative teacher/student relationship. A negative relationship could likely have a disproportionately negative effect on student achievement.

Should that teacher/student relationship be based on low expectations, socially or academically, the year’s 1200 school hours would yield less positive results. While it is important to state that negative teacher/student are rarely born in malice, all teachers should be made aware of the potential damage to student achievement in setting low expectations by claiming that “students can’t”.

“Can’t,” however, was not what I witnessed in the exchange between the teacher and her student, unless it was the message “you can’t interrupt.”

Teachers who consider Hattie’s findings and use the 1200 hours available in every school year to develop positive teacher/student relationships, academically and socio-emotionally, in and outside of the classroom, will see a result in something more than an estimate, a result in actual achievement.

Just be aware that there are times when you can’t interrupt.

If there is a new software for use in the classroom, I am likely to register for a quick trial. On occasion, I have been assigned a username and password, a combination of numbers and letters, for use during length of the trial period.

Last month, on the confirmation email, was a password that was the BEST I had ever received. It read:

“Magenta-Pilgrim-Carbon-Goat”

Such a combination of nouns was clearly a sign from the poetry gods….I needed to write a poem with these words!

Moreover, Poetry Friday is being hosted this week (on 1/5/16) by my dear friend and poet Catherine Flynn who writes on her blog Reading to the Core.

I considered what story could be told using these nouns, and I thought about the word magenta in the password.  The color magenta reminded me of an incident in a local school about 15 years ago. A female student came to high school with her hair dyed a shocking bright magenta color. For this effrontery, she was immediately suspended. Of course, the incident went national, and for a brief time, the local high school was ground zero for dress code politics. Eventually, she was allowed back to school, and the school board revised the dress code.

Today, such a hair dye controversy seems very tame.

Once I knew what story I would use, I had to choose a form of poetry that could feature these four nouns. I rejected quite a few. Sestinas require six nouns for the scheme. Haikus are too short. A sonnet would not feature the words as well. Villanelles only have three rhymes.

So, I settled on a pantoum. A pantoum has a set pattern of repetitive lines:

Pantoum definition: the pattern in each stanza is where the second and fourth line of each verse is repeated as the first and third of the next. The pattern changes though for the last stanza to the first and third line are the second and fourth of the stanza above (penultimate). The last line is a repeat of the first starting line of the poem and the third line of the first is the second of the last.

In the end, I did modify the pantoum a little to fit the story…but that is poetic license!

“Magenta Agenda”

Her hand on hip stance toughens her agenda
She is no stranger to the office; not a Pilgrim.
Her gutsy toss of hair dyed bright Magenta
She counter argues charges of expulsion.

No stranger to the office; she’s no Pilgrim.
They will not use her as their scapegoat
As she challenges charges of expulsion
And argues counter to the rules they wrote.

She flatly states “I’m not your scapegoat,”
And shrugs off rules xeroxed in black carbon.
Challenges the paper charges for expulsion
She won’t back down, and she won’t bargain.

“Review your rules in lines of black ink carbon;
You’ll read no language banning bright magenta!”
Her charge is right, AND more than they had bargained.
“Revise dress code” (*they sigh*) on their next agenda.

Since no language there to ban magenta
No expulsion for hair dyed bright Magenta.
Expect a future challenge to their agenda
That hand on hip stance toughens her agenda.

 

 

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Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.

Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.

Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.

The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity.  In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?

Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.

In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.

And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.

The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.

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Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”

An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:

“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”

So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.

So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?

The writers.
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.

The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.

If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.

“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”

-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)

If they wrote books for teachers,  the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.

 “When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND  “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)

“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)

“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)

 

And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)

“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)

The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their  process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:

Read. Write. Think.*

The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:

In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.

Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.

So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17) when the real reason for the story is revealed.  Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.

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For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice”  and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!

Continue Reading…

#PoetryFriday: Pole Dancers

November 23, 2017 — 11 Comments

The fall of 2017 in Connecticut was one of the warmest on record. That unusual warmth allowed for long evening walks on the beaches of the Long Island Sound shoreline. One night, I witnessed a fabulous illusion which resulted in this poem.

While I am not a regular contributor to the #PoetryFriday posts, I did want to record that moment, and poetry was the best way. Writing this also affirmed the statement by poet Amy Ludwig Vandewater (recently featured at the National Council of Teachers of English) that in order to “write stuff you have to do stuff.”

 

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Carol at Carol’s Corner. Check out the poetry postings!

Here is a dramatic reenactment of writing in schools (with translations) taken from the esteemed writing teacher Donald M. Murray‘s 1982 essay The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts:

STUDENT: “It’s done!” (*phew*).”

TEACHER: “Did you revise?” (translation: “Did your ideas emerge and evolve? Did you clarify your meaning?”)

STUDENT: “I finished it!” (translation: “Just give me a grade! I’m done.”)

TEACHER: (*sigh*) “Hand it in…it’s due” (translation: “Need to move on.”)

In his essay, Murray explained, “When students complete a first draft, they consider the job of writing done – and their teachers too often agree.”

Murray contrasts these attitudes with the attitudes of professional writers who after completing a first draft, “usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process.” He quotes the writer Roald Dahl as saying:

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Murray’s point was that in the professional writer’s world, or the real world, writers have time… or they find time… in order to make time for revision.

That kind of dedicated time for revision that exists in the real world does not exist in schools. Classroom periods are organized most often in chunks of 42, 60, or 84 minutes. The result is that the authentic revision on a piece of writing will take more time than the scheduled school day offer (after all, “there is a curriculum to cover!”)

Complicating the need for dedicated time is the demand for student writing to grade in order to meet assessment schedules: progress reports, quarters, mid-terms, trimesters, etc. That need to grade everything a student writes-drafts, rewrites, final product- is the least authentic part of the writing process.

Just check with Mark Edmundson in his book Why Write?  In the 30 chapters Edmundson uses to answer his question Why Write? the one reason missing is To Get a Grade. In other words, the major reason that students write in school is the one reason missing from the long list of reasons a writer gives for writing.

Murray also noted that students see revision “as an indication that they have failed to do it right the first time,” and to be honest, many teachers have not worked to disavow their students of this belief.

So how to improve teacher and student attitudes towards revision? When to find the time?

Why not start on National Writing Day?

National Writing Day is based on George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write” and is celebrated annually in October.  Orwell understood the difficulty in writing (“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle”) to edit out the “purple prose” or those “sentences without meaning.” Orwell saw revision as necessary for good writing.

So, on this National Writing Day, (10/20/17) you may decide that students do not need to start something new in response to the suggested “Why I Write.” But if they do, they could practice revising their reason(s) why they write.

Lesson Suggestions for National Writing Day

Teachers can take this opportunity to promote revision, and here are several suggestions for highlighting the importance of revision on National Writing Day:

Share famous author revisions to show how they revise. Some suggestions include:

  1. Use the audio and images” in “An Explanation of The Westing Game Manuscript Materials” that show the revisions made by YA author Ellen Raskin for The Westing Game.

     

  2. Share the well-circulated image of JKRowling’s revision process for Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix.
  3. Share Kate DiCamillo’s drafts of the first chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie that also has her entertaining comments on each of the five revisions.
  4. Share (with mature audiences only) the author John Green’s YouTube video explanation on “Why First Drafts Suck!” as he takes on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
  5. Prepare for Halloween with the greatest horror story ever told by experiencing the chilling revisions on the draft of the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Frankenstein. There in Mary Shelley’s handwritten text  contains the spark of life for the Monster, “It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
  6. Extend an invitation to social studies teachers to share historical revisions such as FDR’s speech delivered on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Notable is the revision of the phrase “A day that will live in world history” for the iconic “infamy.”
  7. Include science teachers and share drafts from the prolific science writer (astronomer, astrophysicist) Carl Sagan from the website of the Library of Congress Manuscript Divison. There are twenty full drafts of his works in the archive including 355 pages of the first draft of his novel Contact,  with revisions, in entirety.
  8. Contrast E.B.White’s opening line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” in Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web with his draft #2…and see which students prefer.
  9. Model your own revisions in your writing!

Other suggestions include:

1.Use the entire class period to let students revise a piece they have already written…. (and no grading!)

2. Have students respond to quotes about revision made by authors:

  • James McBride (The Color of Water): “Writing is the act of failing at something all the time.”
  • Ernest Hemingway: “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.”
  • Georgia Heard (poet): “Students need to be reminded that revision isn’t merely making a few cosmetic changes. Revision is seeing and then reseeing our words and practicing strategies that make a difference in our writing.”
  • Pearl S. BuckI(“The Big Wave”) “If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.”

 3. Build a lesson on the synonyms for revision; have students discuss the differences in their meanings in order to answer the question, “Why I Revise”:

  • emendation
  • editing
  • updating
  • correction
  • change
  • review
  • amendment
  • modification
  • alteration

National Day of Writing: Friday, October 20th (#whyiwrite)

Whatever you choose to do with students, engaging them in the practice of revision IS engaging them in the practice of writing. Revision is the authentic writing that students need to do, so that they will, as Murray explained, grow to understand that “each word has the potential to ignite new meaning.”

For this 9th Annual National Writing Day, the question “Why I Write” could be answered with “in order to have something to revise,” as all writing is rewriting. This could give students and teachers just a little more time as Donald Murray had hoped, for revision, for “time for just another run at it, perhaps then…”

(This post? A total of 16  17  18 revisions over four days…”perhaps then” indeed!)

Style is that “identifiable quality that varies from author to author.” That seems a simple idea.

The wording in the Common Core Anchor Standard for style seems simple:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Teaching style, however, is not simple. Our high school students who spend hours creating their own style-selecting music stylings, stylizing phone cases, following YouTube fashion stylists-go blank when asked to assess or identify the style of a text.

One stumbling block could be in the selections of texts for examples. Style is often subtle or nuanced, which means that if style is described as the voice of the author, then some authors speak in whispers.

Until September 2016.

That’s when Bruce Springsteen used his authorial voice to tell his life story in his autobiography Born to Run.

His voice is not a whisper…His voice is LOUD!

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

His voice is hyphen-heavy, word-binding; it is a tete-a-tete with the reader.

His voice lists, lists, lists, all of the emotions, locations, events, memories, friends, and objects he has collected over his career.

And he is direct; he knows why he wanted to be a songwriter:

“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.”

 He writes well. He writes individually. He writes with style. This is 508 pages of The Boss talking to you, the reader.

While some of his language choices in the autobiography may limit a few examples for classroom use, most selections of this text could be used for analysis. There is also the opportunity to compare and contrast the autobiography with song lyrics. In both genres, Springsteen offers examples for practice to identify and to assess style through his word choice, his tone, and his syntax:

  • word choice: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” (Born to Run lyrics)
  • tone (sad): “No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress.” (The River lyrics)
  • syntax: “Then . . . if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, a furious fire in the hole that just . . . don’t . . . quit . . . burning.” (Born to Run-Autobiography)

The evidence for an identifiable Springsteen style begins on page one of Born to Run, where the prose in the story of his life is mirrored in his earlier song lyrics:

 “I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless . . . I am seven years old” (1).

That line sounds suspiciously like the list in his song lyrics:

“I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man” (Rosalita).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with lists.

In his autobiography, Springsteen’s voice in reflects on his hometown:

 “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin”(7).

This hyper-hyphenating in the autobiography is not very different from Springsteen’s lists of the same Jersey locations in the song lyrics for  Born to Run:

“Sprung from cages on Highway 9,
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected
And steppin’ out over the line.”

Conclusion:  Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with hyphenated word combinations.
Then, read on a few more pages and you become aware of Springsteen’s extensive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, such this reflection on Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

“Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” (39)

That same style choice is chosen for other musical force in his life, The Beatles:

The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and . . . THE HAIR . . . THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of . . . THE HAIR” (50).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s prose in the autobiography is filled with CAPITAL LETTERS, a style choice he makes to emphasize the IMPORTANT MOMENTS of REALIZATION. His lyrics probably don’t need to be capitalized; he can sing those LOUD for emphasis.

Finally, in both song lyrics and in prose, Springsteen serves up multiple examples of motifs he uses to communicate ideas. In writing about his upbringing and religion:

“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward” (17).

A similar idea is expressed in the lyrics to Land of Hope and Dreams.

“Dreams will not be thwarted.
This train…
Faith will be rewarded.”

Of course, if we are talking about faith, here is yet another take on faith that Springsteen placed into a rhyming couplet for the lyrics of  Thunder Road:

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night;
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.

That tone…those blunt, coarse, tender words…the casual-just-you-and-me attitude….the style of the voice that sang 508 pages of his life into my head….I hold the lighter up and beg for an encore: BRUUUCCCE!

It’s not you.

It’s the text.

It’s moving on…to another grade level.

“I just don’t understand why….” you catch your breath, “it’s been the only book I liked …no, I loved… to teach.”  

You pause, ‘Why does it have to leave?”

After all, you and the book have been together for school years. You have bonded during the pre-teaching stage, the author bio, and the background vocabulary. You were always excited to share the best part of the story with students, and they were engaged by your passion. But, the relationship is coming to an end. The book is leaving for any one of the following reasons:

 

  •  curriculum revisions with different texts
  • a move to a different grade level
  • to make way for new materials
  • replacement copies are not available 

You will have to clean out the banks of questions carefully organized by chapter, or the files stuffed with activities to go with the text. Your long ago plans for the bulletin board will need to change.

You have been told, “It’s about teaching the skills, not the content.”  But that seems a cold appraisal of a text that is more than content to you. Whether the book could be Lois Lowry’s historical novel Number the Stars or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you have seen (and felt) how these texts have generated powerful connections for you and for the students.

At this low moment, however, you might consider that this break-up could be a good thing.

Frankly, you know too much.  and there is the slight possibility that you have been teaching YOUR version of the text. After all, you have done all the research. You have all the materials. You have all the answers.

Even more reasons as to why it is time to move on.

It’s time to remember how you fell in love with the book. That sense of discovery in learning the characters, rereading their experiences, delighting in the words. And while the thought of starting over can be overwhelming, there can also be a twinge of anticipation….a chance for discovery.

It’s time.

It’s time to start new, and in starting new you can give your students the opportunity to let the students do the research. Let the students find the materials. Let the student provide the answers.

There are new texts just waiting to be discovered: Wolf Hollow, Fish in a Tree, The March Trilogy. Maybe there are other classic characters just waiting to be introduced: Stone Fox, Guy Montag, Ponyboy.

You will be able to guide your students’ inquiry on any text you have not taught because you already know how to develop a relationship with a book. You can guide students as they discover how an author can engage and sustain their interest.  You can offer a chance for discovery to your students, and for yourself as well.

You remember how you fell in love with a book.

Now, use your breakup to show your students how to fall in love with a book on their own.