Archives For Creative Writing

Books offered in Grade 12 Creative Writing

On occasion, I hear a statement that captures how much the classroom differs from the real world.

Such was the case at the International Reading Association Conference in Boston (July 9-11, 2016) when literacy consultant Mark Overmeyer noted that in the real world:

“Our most skilled writers have editors…the more skilled the writer, the more editors”

Then he pointed out the obvious,

“So why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

Editors in the Real World

Overmeyer was speaking at the session to a roomful of educators, attending the session on “Grammar Matters: Promoting Engagement, Strategic Instruction, and Reflection Using Mentor Texts.” His statements highlighted the contrast between the support the best professional writers receive and the support an average student-at any grade level-receives is worth looking into for a moment.

First, in the real world there are different roles editors who specialize in stage of writing. Here is a description of editors, and how these roles are represented (or not) in the writing process in schools today.

  1. Acquisition Editor: This editor selects books for a publisher, and stays with an author in prepping a book for publication.
    Counterpart in education: The teacher may submit a piece for “publication” in a literary magazine, a writing writing contest, or hang student work on a bulletin board.
  2. Developmental Editor: This is the writing coach, or in some cases, the ghost writer, who supports the writer in moving the writing forward.
    Counterpart in education: Could be a teacher 
  3. Content Editor: In large publishing houses, there are Content Editors who review all writing.
    Counterpart in education: A teacher
  4. Copy Editor: This editor reviews grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting. There are Copy Editors for the different forms of publications: newspaper, brochures, books, etc. Some publishers use a line editor as well.
    Counterpart in education: teacher, student or student peer
  5. Proofreader: A proofreader reviews writing after an editor.image
    Counterpart in education: teacher grading the final product.


In the real world, there is an editor for every stage of the writing process. A book will go through an editorial review by a different specialist at LEAST four times before publication. In contrast, a student will receive editorial feedback from one single source….the teacher.

In making his observation, Overmeyer pointed out the fallacy of autonomy that is often seen in schools:

“We [teachers] purposely do not help,” he noted, “They [students] are on their own!”

He argued that there is an assumption by educators that the students should be able to produce “perfection”.

Writing Towards Improvement

Overmeyer’s point was that student writing should not be used to measure perfection, but used instead to measure a student’s improvement.

Contributing to the drive for perfection Is graded writing. Grading is a diagnosis, an informal or formal assessment of a particular skill set. Because graded writing is diagnostic, students are expected to perform without assistance in order to produce quality writing. More often than not, teachers do not step in to help with writing because they want to know how well a student can perform on his or her own.

Overmeyer’s comment, however, points out this fallacy of autonomy, the false assumption that because a student has been taught particular skills in writing, they should be able to produce correct writing independent of support.

Overmeyer’s reference to the enormous amount of support an adult writer receives in the real world stands in sharp contrast to what students are expected to do. For those adults wishing to enter the field of writing, there are a number of professionals willing -often for a price- to help anyone to become a published writer.

For example, consider the positive support offered by the site, NY Book Editors:

“[Our] editor’s goal is to make your story more engaging. Editors may correct spelling and grammar here and there, but that’s not their role. It’s the job of a copyeditor to fix your grammar, and he steps in at the final stages of the editing process.”

For multiple reasons (time, budget, teacher buy-in, etc.) however, this specialized editorial support is missing in the classroom. Instead of the supportive instruction available to adults, the teacher’s role may shift from developmental editor to copy editor or “corrector-in-chief.”

“Be Human”

The best way to improve student writing is through conferencing, and Overmeyer has detailed how to integrate the different kinds of conferring that can happen in the classroom in his recent book, Let’s Talk.

During the presentation, Overmeyer promoted the role of the teacher as a writing coach, reminding teachers to “be human” when they do provide their feedback to students. He provided an example of a student who chose to wrote about the recent death of a relative.

“That’s not when you correct his paper,” Overmeyer noted. “You need to be human…read the content.”

#ILA16

The International Literacy Association (ILA) Conference in 2016  brought together numbers of like-minded literacy educators and gave them the opportunity to share in order to move the education profession forward. This conference gave also teachers a opportunity to hear one voice -in this case the voice of Mark Overmeyer-pose the challenging question:

“Why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

We can’t….and we shouldn’t.

There is a comedian whose improvisation routine includes asking “What if?” questions using Google search engine. Audience members call out a letter, the comedian enters “What if+ letter” in the search bar, he reads the first topic(s) that pop up, and then he jokes about that topic.

In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th, here is a try at the same routine (without the jokes) taken on (4/9/16)

Top 5 Google Search Results:

“What if Shakespeare…?”

#1. Shakespearean What-Ifs — Good Tickle Brain

 This first entry to pop-up features the mini-comics of  Mya, artist and librarian who was introduced to Shakespeare at  eight or nine years old, and has been addicted ever since. She drew the first Shakespearean What-If in five hours for Mini-Comics Day at the University of Michigan Art, Architecture and Engineering Library.Screenshot 2016-04-09 08.47.35

Her “What ifs…” feature alternate Shakespearean timelines that “…hinge on a single moment when Tragedies could so easily become comedies, and comedies could so easily end in tears.”
Here’s a look at some alternate Shakespearean timelines that she offers for print:

If you are so inclined, feel free to download the Hamlet PDF and print them out full size (no scaling to fit page, thank you) Also Julius Caesar and Macbeth.


#2. Quote by Gayle Forman: “But what if Shakespeare― 

 “But what if Shakespeare― and Hamlet― were asking the wrong question? What if the real question is not whether to be, but how to be?” (1).Just one day

The second pop-up was a quote by Gayle Forman who is also writer, a writer that does not have to be assigned to read in high school. Young adults made her novel If I Stay a best-seller. She also wrote the novel Just One Day, in which the protagonist Allyson Healey’s post-graduation trip to Europe changes her life, She makes an uncharacteristically unpredictable decision to stay with Willem, a Shakespearean actor. The quote above opens the novel.

Forman’s bio on her website lists 13 interesting facts; here are three:
  • When I was little I wanted to grow up to be the sun. I was devastated to learn this was not a career option.
  • I bombed my SATs. I still did okay in life.
  • As a teen, I was so obsessed with Molly Ringwald that I started biting my lip like she did and now I have a permanent scar. And this is why I am a YA author.

 


#3. If Shakespeare Had a Sister

To be honest, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, one that centered on how Shakespeare’s gender allowed him to become the great dramatist, occupied both #3 and #4 positions in the “What if Shakespeare?” search.
Woolf ‘s essay suggests that if Shakespeare had a sister, one who also was brilliant playwright, she would not have had the same opportunities to write and to stage plays,. Furthermore, she would be driven mad and would have died in obscurity. Woolf imagines this sister-Judith- who as a child,
“…picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”
Rather than marry, young Judith would run away from home, seeking drama,like her brother William, to express her genius:
“She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face.”
Judith would meet a far different fate than her brother. Woolf suggests,
“that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

In her essay Woolf’s mourns not only the fictional Judith, but also the unheard voices of real women writers throughout history who suffered similar fates.

 


#4. What if… we didn’t have Shakespeare – Prospect Magazine

The subtitle of this article by Justina Crabtree Could Christopher Marlowe have equalled Shakespeare’s achievement? is a commentary on the budding genius of playwright Marlowe before his untimely end in a knife fight in a bar. Crabtree poses the question as to whether Marlowe might have had the same impact on language as Shakespeare did:

“Without [Shakespeare] him, nobody would “melt into thin air” (The Tempest), nor would there be “method in our madness” (Hamlet). We’d never be “in a pickle” (The Tempest), nor would we ever be a “laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor). Things would never go “full circle” (King Lear), or be achieved in “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).”

Furthermore, Crabtree ponders if Marlowe had the potential to match Shakespeare’s characters, those “truly rich, three-dimensional characters” which were a “progression away from the Medieval morality tradition.”

 


anonymousThis   or response –not a review- by Stephen Marche on Roland Emmerich’s film, Anonymous (2011) laments how the central question in the film, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” was so poorly presented. As a professor who had taught Shakespeare in the past, Marche admitted that he is no film critic, but he is a critic of the flawed position that credited Edward de Vere as the real author of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, etc:
“And if you take “Anonymous” as just a movie, it may not even be that bad. I couldn’t possibly judge, because I was apoplectically stuttering about the inconsistencies…”
Marche is convinced that Emmerich’s film will drive students to challenge Shakespeare’s authenticity and sympathizes with the Shakespeare scholars who will be driven crazy with ridiculous speculations. As for Marche? He has no doubt about Shakespeare:
“So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible.”

While I had thought five entries would be enough, the #6 entry is too good not to share

#6. What if Shakespeare wrote Star Wars? “Alas, poor … 

 What if William Shakespeare took a crack at Star Wars? Just imagine the classic Wookie and R2-D2 chess scene re-written as a Greek chorus.
Well, you do not have to imagine, because there is stirring in the Force, a new series of the Star Wars trilogies by Ian Doescher. An example?

Star Wars HamletLUKE Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too? 5
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.

The tagline? Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

What, How, and Why do you write?

The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Writing Project, The New York Times Learning Network, and the Teaching Channel want to know.

Today, Tuesday, October 20th, 2015, people everywhere are encouraged to respond to the prompt asking What, How, and Why do you write as part of the Seventh Annual National Day on Writing.

Reponses to will be shared in in a “tweet up” during the day using the hashtag #whyIwrite.

I have, of course, my own reasons why I write, but first I would like to share two statements made by the senior media correspondent for CNN, Brian Stelter at a Q & A session at the Inspire Expert Event at the NY offices at About.com (10/17,15). This event brought together the experts that write for the About.com website.

stelterBrian Stetler has been a media reporter for The New York Times and the editor of TVNewser He currently hosts the CNN Sunday morning show Reliable Sources.

In this Q & A session Stelter’s two statements on writing stood out, not because they were surprising, but because they were not surprising, especially for any of the other writers in the audience.

His first statement addresses the Why and How of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“The only way for me to sound smart on TV is [for me] to write all week long.”

This first statement speaks the importance of writing as a process for learning. Because I am an educator, I am expected to promote writing everyday at every grade level and in every subject. Because I write,  however, I can attest to how much more I learn about a topic when I write about that topic. Practicing writing is no different than practicing math facts or practicing for an athletic competition. Writing more improves writing.

Stelter’s second statement addresses the What of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“When I am writing and producing the stories, I discover another great story that has not been written yet, and I can’t wait to get it started.”

This statement by Stelter supports writing as a process of discovery, of finding out what one thinks, of enthusiastically embracing new ideas, of living with the creative disruption of ideas.

When I taught the Advanced Placement English Literature class, the timed in class essays that students drafted would often begin with one idea (thesis) in the opening paragraphs that would mature and change midway through the essay. Somewhere in the middle of this rough drafted essay would be this creative disruption-a new idea- like the discovery that Stelter claimed he found in writing. In these drafts, each student wrote his or her way into the new idea and (usually) developed a more confident position as he or she wrote.

Such an essay would conclude making a point different from the original thesis, a surprise to students who discovered a common experience- “I didn’t know what to write until I wrote it.” While this in class writing exercise from my students produced a series of poor to average drafts that needed revision, there was evidence of great thinking on these papers.

That is what writing is. Writing is thinking on paper.  Brian Stelter explained that thinking. Writers understand that thinking.

So What do I write? I write about education.

How do I write? Daily (mornings are best!)

Why do I write? I write to know what I think.

Happy National Day of Writing!

There is a gap between writing for school and authentic writing.

Just how big is that gap? If you consider an NPR interview with E.L. Doctorow that was recently replayed on the airwaves, the gap is a chasm….nay, an unmeasurable abyss.

What Doctorow said about his approach to the writing process, leads to only one conclusion about the teaching of writing:

We’re doing it wrong.

Doctorow’s original interview was replayed after his death on July 21st, 2015. His initials E.L. stood for Edgar Lawrence, and he was noted for his work with historical fiction including  Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005).

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

The NPR broadcast (7/22/15) was created from a collection of interviews from their archives. In one exchange with Scott Simon, Doctorow had responded to a question about his writing process by saying,

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you’re writing. You don’t start with an outline and a plan.

Maybe you can feel the shudder of writing teachers everywhere, especially those insist that students first draft an outline or use a five paragraph template for any piece of writing. Of course, Doctorow was writing in the narrative format, where his plan started with the use of particularly “vocative images” to begin his stories:

And in this case, it’s the first line in the book where Andrew’s saying I can tell you what I’m about to tell you, but it’s not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

The narrative genre may lend itself to Doctorow’s approach of “finding yourself with your character,” but writing in schools, especially at the secondary level, is in the expository/informational or persuasive genres. The Common Core State Standards have reinforced very deliberate borders between these genres. But Doctorow confounds these boundaries, incorporating factual information into his historical imaginings that play with the “myth of history” as an end product.

In a 2008 interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction, No.94″), Doctorow boasted about his use of history:

So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.

History teachers may get sidetracked with Doctorow’s argument that history is a battlefield, “constantly being fought over because the past controls the present.” Yet, in taking the risks in “letting in light and air” to history,  Doctorow’s created another truth, a truth that did not require writing from his own experiences:

Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.

Again, there may be a palpable shudder from writing teachers who have used “writing from your experience” as a mantra.

Analysis of literature was another area that Doctorow explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep (in archived interviews) that almost kept him from being a writer:

That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my [analysis] training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction.

Apparently, all those literary essays assigned by English teachers could be stifling this next generation of writers.

In making the connection between reading and writing, however, Doctorow described his own experience and this would win approval from teachers:

 I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer. You’re reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

So, what can writing teachers learn from one of America’s most celebrated novelists? What advice might they consider in writing instruction?

  1. Students should not limit themselves to write from experience;
  2. In narratives, students should not use an outline as they find the story through a character instead;
  3. Students should know that history is flexible enough for play, and for letting in  “air and light”;
  4. Analysis essays can take writers in the wrong direction;
  5. To be writers, students must read;
  6. Writing is knowing.

Whether teachers heed the advice of Doctorow from these interviews may not matter, as it is acknowledged that each writer differs in approach and style. Without question, however, the writing process for Doctorow flies in the face of any prescribed writing instruction. As he explained to Inskeep:

I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I’m writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

In the bell-to-bell day of today’s classroom, with a constant stream of interruptions during timed essay writing or writing on demand, we are doing it wrong.
It is unlikely that a student writer will find the quiet that Doctorow appreciated.
There is no blank wall.

Students will have to find their own way out of the narrative through sentences, but teachers should try to give them the time and space to let that happen.

All hail.extol.…laud the mighty Roget’s Thesaurus!

Any one struggling with trying to find the right word can attest to the support that he or she may have found in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, a reference book that celebrates its birthday every April 29th. Writers pour through its pages in the hunt to find an alternate to “said” (articulated, phonated, viva voce) or establish the kind of “sleep” (catnap, doze, trance) or select the state of being “happy” (elated, joyous, upbeat).

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Like its cousin the dictionary, the synonyms and antonyms of Roget’s Thesaurus are arranged alphabetically. That decision was made by its originator, Peter Mark Roget who published the first thesaurus in 1852, some 100 years after Samuel Johnson published the successful Dictionary of the English Language.

Roget’s objective with the thesaurus was to help the writer or speaker “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”

In the forward to the first edition, Roget wrote:

“It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published.”

The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek θησαυρός (thēsauros), “treasure, treasury, storehouse”, and the thesaurus is indeed a treasure of language. A word of caution, however, to those who use this treasure trove improperly; fancy words do not guarantee academic writing.

For example, there is a danger of overuse, as demonstrated in this dialogue from a episode of Friends when the character Joey wanted to appear “smart”. He had replaced every ordinary word in an application letter with its synonym from the thesaurus:

Joey: I wrote, “They’re warm nice people with big hearts.”

Chandler: “And that became, ‘They’re humid pre-processing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’?”

Students often make these same kinds of novice errors. In their attempts to sound “smart”, they include words they do not understand, adding “verdant” to  “green” grasses. They create contradictory combinations such as “nimbly lethargic” or “exigent tolerance.” Then, there is the tale of the student whose creative writing assignment featured a woman eating a delicious chignon, a bun one puts in one’s hair.

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or "daisies"

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or “daisies”

Now, with software available on multiple platforms, students can choose to hunt through pages of a text or try one of several online thesaurus tools that help them find the perfect word.

There is the subscription based VisualThesaurus which is an “interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words.” Clicking on any word allows students to see an abundance of alternatives. A free version of this form of interactive thesaurus is found at Visuwords.

Merriam-Webster also offers a student friendly thesaurus at WordCentral which offers many other interactive features such as word-of-the-day or student-created disctionaries.

Interactive activities for students

Interactive activities for students

Simpler versions can be found at  BigHugeLabs or at Thesaurusland offer stripped down versions  that require only that a student enters a word in the search box to get synonyms or antonyms.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.40.53

Simple version of an online thesaurus

 

 Students can jubilate or rejoice or revel or solemnize in marking the 163rd anniversary of the thesaurus.  They can acknowledge or appreciate or enjoy or welcome how the thesaurus has helped their writing.
However, as intently or as meticulously or as scrupulously as they search in texts or search online, students will not be able to answer the question, what’s another word for thesaurus?

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

If nothing else, the Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) contribution to the academic lexicon will be the renaming of the genre known as non-fiction to a larger genre of informational texts. This renaming expanded the genre to include many forms of reading: textbooks, letters, speeches, maps, brochures, memoirs, biographies, and news articles, to name a few.

So where to find these informational texts? What is appetizing enough to make middle school students want to read a story, and then, answer the questions to check their understanding? What kind of high interest texts appeal to high school students who prefer to “Google” or “Sparknote” answers rather than read a text closely? What multi-media elements could be added to make an informational text palatable enough to be consumed by all levels of readers?

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.30.17 PM

The 2:12 video for accompanies the story

Well, teachers should look no further than the October 1, 2013, New York Times‘ feature article dedicated to Doritos Tortilla Chip titled That Nacho Dorito Taste. This short feature article combined photography and graphics;  a short video: and even shorter text that combined to provide an explanation on how this particular food is engineered so that “you can’t eat just one.”

The article is timely since the CCSS  requires that the student diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction by the time they graduate from high school.  The Literacy Standards specifically address reading in math, science, social studies, and the technical areas and recommends the increase in reading informational texts be completed in these classes. One of the technical areas content area classes could be a culinary arts class, a marketing class, or a health science class, but consider this particular informational text as scrumptious for any class.

In organizing this story, New York Times reporter Michael Moss, who also narrates the embedded video, interviewed food scientist Steven A. Witherly, author of “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” in order to better understand how all of the chemical elements combine in the Nacho Cheese Doritos chip to make it alluring to our taste buds.  According to Witherly, the mixing of flavors on this particular chip is purposeful:

 “What these are trying to do is excite every stinking taste bud receptor you have in your mouth.”

The graphics for the article by Alicia DeSantis and Jennifer Daniel are cleverly combined with photographs by Fred R. Conrad, also from the The New York Times. A separate page layout with the graphic/photo mix delivers tidbits of information about the Dorito chip. Each detail is organized by topic, as this example shows:

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 9.46.47 PM

A teacher does not even have to work at organizing questions for students to answer since the New York Time Learning Network, a free educational blog offered by the paper, organized an entire lesson plan on this article. The lesson is titled 6 Q’s About the News | The Science Behind Your Craving for Doritos, organized by Katherine Schulten. The questions on the blog include:

WHAT is psychobiology?
WHAT is “dynamic contrast”?
HOW do the acids in Doritos work on the brain?

WHAT is “sensory-specific satiety”?

WHERE do half the calories in Doritos come from, and, according to the graphic, HOW does that work on the brain?

WHY is “forgettable flavor” so important to Doritos’ success?

The higher order questions invite students to consider:

Now that you know the formula behind Doritos, are you more likely to eat more or less of them? WHY?
HOW many processed foods do you eat a day?
WHAT might a graphic explaining the effects of this food look like?

So go ahead. Read the Nacho Cheese Doritos article. See how irresistible an informational text can be. Once you read one this good, you will be searching to find another!

One of my favorite cartoons features a young woman, obviously nervous, seated next to a white-suited, white-haired caricature of Samuel Clemens. Above her head floats a thought bubble,“‘I want to be a writer,’ she thought, mused, considered, said aloud, to no one, to herself, giving voice to the idea passion she had always had in her heart but had only recently discovered in her hand head.”

I also always wanted to be a writer, but the responsibility of writing stopped me. Writing was a task that I took very seriously. I had to write papers for courses I took. I had to write letters-personal and professional- and I had to write memos for work. Writing was a product that needed to be perfect. As a result, my writing duties had stifled my writing passion.

However, sixteen months ago I started this blog to share the ways I had increased the number of books in school classrooms. During the first month of entries, I wondered if I would have enough materials to write about on a blog about used books in class.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that what I have discovered is that writing is less product and more thinking. Sadly, I was an English teacher who required writing and encouraged students to write regularly in class, but who did not cognitively understand that writing is really a recording of thinking. I was always interested developing (and assigning) the prompt and collecting (and correcting) the final product. I did not fully understand the necessity of thinking as the most critical part of the writing until I began to write myself.

Now, as a convert to writing as thinking, I am using this post to encourage others to write in order to think.

October 19-20th, 2012 will be the National Day of Writing. The National Writing Project (NWP) is encouraging people to contribute to “What I Write” on their website:

What do you write or compose? Blog posts? Poems? Videos? Grocery lists, computer code, or song lyrics? Whatever you write, on Friday, October 19, use the hashtag #whatiwrite to share your compositions with the world as part of this year’s National Day on Writing.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has  links on their blog for people to read what authors say about why they write. The NYTimes Learning Network also has a page on their blog asking, “Post what, you ask? Well, could be…

  • Thoughts about what you write, whether it’s poetry, short stories, school essays, computer code, love notes, song lyrics or Facebook updates.
  • A link to some writing you want to show others.
  • A photo or drawing that illustrates something about writing, or illustrates something you’ve written.
  • Thoughts about things you’d like to write someday.
  • Notes on your writing process.
  • Thoughts on the role of writing in your life in general.
  • Advice about writing.
  • Links to good pieces about writers or writing

So, on Friday, October 19th, I will have my students create lists of topics they want to “think” about, topics* they want to explore in writing over the course of the year. We will collaborate on a master list using a Google doc that we can revisit over the course of the school year. I want my students to learn how to write, but more importantly, I want my students to learn how to write so they can think. I want they to feel free to write without constant assessment. I want them to write and read what they write to understand what they think. Hopefully, in this process they will discover that writing is not an academic responsibility, and that good writing is really good thinking. And I will imagine  thought bubbles over their heads as they write.

Share the hashtag #whatIwrite.

*Topic list created 10/18/2012

The pressure is on. School starts in another two weeks. Summer reading still needs to be done!

Right about this time, there are some parents who are reminding (nagging?) students about their summer reading assignments, there are librarians and book stores scrambling to locate books posted on reading list, there are some students trying to cram in a little reading, while there are some students trying to cram in a few Spark Notes instead of the summer reading book. Is this commotion necessary? Is all this activity to have students read books over the summer vacation a worthwhile endeavor?

Yes. Yes, it is.

On the New York State Department of Education website, there is a summary of research on summer reading:

“In a 2009 government web cast, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described summer learning loss as ‘devastating.’ This is what researchers have often referred to as the “summer slide.” It is estimated that school summer breaks will cause the average student to lose up to one month of instruction, with disadvantaged students being disproportionately affected (Cooper, 1996).”

“Researchers conclude that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years, with nearly one-third of the gap present when children begin school (Alexander, Entwistle & Olsen, 2007).”

“The body of existing research demonstrates the critical importance that the early development of summer reading habits can play in providing the foundation for later success.”

We assign summer reading for all grades 7-12. Academic level students in grades 7-11 have a choice of books, fiction and non-fiction, from suggested lists. Our excellent media specialist is a great resource for making recommendations and coordinating these lists for distribution. Honors level students are required to read specific titles; Advanced Placement students are assigned four to five books. Seniors read books that are directly connected to the elective they have chosen. All summer reading is due the first week of school.

We use the dialectical journal as an assessment tool. Students are required to find passages (5 from the first half of the book, 5 from the second half) that they think help them better understand the bigger issues of the book– theme, characterization, narrative voice, the author’s attitude towards his subject (tone), etc. The passages can be either narration or dialogue. Students respond to each passage in one of several ways such as:
1. Make a connection
2. Interpret/make a prediction
3. Ask a question (attempt to answer it)
4. Extend the meaning
5. Challenge the text

Dialectical_Journal Instructions
The first weeks of school are all about assessing individual student and evaluating class learning. Reading student responses in dialectical journals is one method a teacher can use to quickly assess a student’s comprehension and writing skills at the beginning of the school year.

I have located many of the required texts for summer reading in the used book market to make access easier for honors level students. We are able to offer gently used copies of all of the assigned texts including:
Grade 9 Honors: The Alchemist, Paul Coehlo
Grade 10 Honors: Nectar in a Sieve, Kamala Markandaya OR The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy OR The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Grade 11 AP Language: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac AND The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards AND On Writing by Stephen King AND The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Grade 12 AP Literature: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck AND The Tempest Shakespeare AND The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski OR The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver AND Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie OR Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Grade 11 & 12 Journalism:
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers OR Firehouse by David Halberstam
Grade 12 Drama
: Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Grade 12 Creative Writing: On Writing, Stephen King
Grade 12 Memoir: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel OR Lost in Place by Mark Salzman OR Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs OR Lucky by Alice Sebold

Unfortunately, the agrarian school calendar has created summer months where many students do not engage in any academic activity. Summer reading requirements for students at any grade level, choice or assigned, are speed bumps in slowing down the “summer slide.”