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Writers Use Risk before Rigor – Essays by ExamplebyJennifer Frasher
“There’s a deer standing in the front hall,” she told me one quiet evening in the country.
“No. I just wanted to tell you something once without your saying, ‘I know.’”1
(Annie Dillard from An American Childhood)
That word – rigor – gives most of us a visceral reaction. In his book “Why They Can’t Write” John Warner offers a surprisingly obvious reason for our reaction, “A body in rigor experiences a sudden, cold sensation coupled with profuse sweating, like in a fever. Rigor mortis is stiff and dead. Neither of these should be used to describe learning.”2 So how can we fulfill the ever-present demand for educational rigor when it comes to writing without killing ourselves and our students?
If you are here reading this, then you are already an engaged educator. Whether experienced, or newer, you already have a skill set and understanding that you bring to the classroom around the topic of reading and writing instruction. Let’s set aside that term rigor, for now, trusting that it will be there in the end.
Immersion into a classroom writing program, specifically a writers’ workshop, is like boldly jumping off a boat in deep water knowing you’re going to have to swim like heck to get back to shore.
No pressure…but waiting for you on shore are a whole bunch of highly respected professionals, academics and parents; and more importantly, your colleagues and audience. Along the way are buoys labeled 1st Draft, 2nd Draft, and there are people in boats cheering you on and at the ready if you flounder. Many people jump off the boat with you, determined to meet the challenge, as well.
The cold water is refreshing…even if a little breathtaking. You don’t think about whether you’re out of your depth…yet. You concentrate instead on the strip of shore you have chosen. Most of you start out with strong and sure strokes. Initial hesitation was left back on the boat, but reality will set in independently for each swimmer.
Before you jumped you were worried about keeping pace with the others. “Just enjoy the swim,” you told yourself sternly. Now here you are in a moving, pulsing school of swimmers, not synchronized but surging forward. As some start to falter, others reach out their hands, and some tread water together; when ready, each continues on.
Soon you don’t care about the shore so much, you just want to make it to that first buoy. Some will make it easily, smoothly, apparently effortless, but their bodies as they rest there show their breathing, revealing the work. Now calls of encouragement skim the water’s surface and all make the first marker eventually. Congratulatory rounds and fist bumps savored, the swimmers rest before once again striking out on the next leg of the journey.
When you finally reach the shore you might be exhausted but the feeling of triumph will be undeniable. You will accomplish something made possible by the efforts and accomplishments of not only yourself, but all those surrounding you. The joy of your success is sweeter for the success of all the swimmers, the whole school of you.3
Writing is about risk taking. Acquiring skills and strategies is necessary, learning and practicing effective techniques essential, but there is significant power in doing these things within the support structure of a nurturing group. It is scary stuff. It is scary to reveal ourselves and our insecurities. It is scary to mess up, fail, start over, especially in front of others. But nobody jumps off a boat in open water thinking “no big deal,” nor would anyone expect that. The risk is implicit and expected. We need to acknowledge that writing is risk…and hard work...and re-do, and that is all okay. We need to present the writing process as an ongoing journey rather than judging success on individual pieces. We need to become a community of writers. We can start by being honest and vulnerable with our students, writing with them along the way. This is the work that real writers do.
While reading has always been a personal and professional passion, writing and I have had a bit of a love/hate relationship. Growing up I was always starting to write stories, but not finishing them. All of my favorite authors were prolific story writers. I loved thick, heavy volumes, especially those in a series, choosing to immerse myself in that “other world” for as long as possible. What I did not like were short stories or excerpts, especially when they were in a magazine and I couldn’t have “more.” But when it came to my own stories, I didn’t seem to have “more.” Interesting openings, descriptive scenes, dialogue, or deep character reflection: not a problem. But a whole engaging, original story just would never develop.
When I got involved in the Delaware Teachers’ Institute five years ago, publishing my unit gave me a purpose for writing, along with self-selected topics and an audience. Being regularly involved in the writing process improved the quality of my writing and my confidence.
Participating in the writing seminar “Reading for Writing: Modeling the Modern Essay” for the Yale National Initiative gave me another new perspective for writing. Essay writing was something I thought of as a scholastic task, so I easily thought of classroom applications. But our first readings quickly indicated that essays are a large part of real-world writing that I hadn’t previously considered. Essays are ever present in magazines, newspapers, journals, guides, blogs, and more. Somehow, I had managed to erroneously relegate essays to the same category as the “short stories” and “story excerpts” I disliked growing up; I didn’t actually understand the specifics of a “modern essay.” I started reading essays with a new eye but still wondered what makes a “good essay” specifically.
All of this reflection brings me to work on developing a unit at the intersection of the concrete, academic benefits of nonfiction writing and the benefits of creative writing for a purpose and an audience. It also means selecting effective mentor texts in a variety of genres and academic levels. By using mentor texts we benefit from the hard work (risk and rigor) those writers have already applied. I want my students to feel valued for their writing by setting them up for success through exposure to many writing purposes and strong examples in a writing community where they feel safe and challenged.
I teach at William B. Keene Elementary school in the Christina School District. Once the largest district in Delaware, recent closings of some of our city schools has changed that distinction. Christina is spread out between the City of Wilmington, Suburban Newark, and the nearby region of Bear. It is one of only four districts in the United States to serve a non-contiguous area.
Keene Elementary School is located in a region known as “Bear” in New Castle County, Delaware. The school address is technically “Newark, Delaware” but our location is far from the bustling college town of that name. Despite the school’s proximity to some of its feeder neighborhoods, its location between a major highway and a strip of woods means that all students are either bus riders, or car riders, not walkers. This corridor of the highway has a very transient population and many of our students come and go throughout the K-5 grade span of the school.
Our location is next to the Troop Two State Police Barracks, which is a mixed blessing. We have the benefit of quick security response but proximity to the comings and goings of criminals. While the students were off for this year’s Spring Break, a criminal assaulted a Troop Two Officer and escaped, prompting an all-out manhunt that eventually culminated in the escapee being taken down by a police dog just outside of our school building. There were tons of police cars, a helicopter, and eventually a few ambulances on the scene. Administration, office and custodial staff were all on lockdown during the incident. While the students weren’t exposed to the significant trauma inherent in an actual lockdown, swarming law enforcement, sirens, hovering helicopters, and the powerful and dangerous efficiency of a police dog doing its job just outside of their classrooms, most of them living in our surrounding neighborhoods were still at risk. Our students are acutely aware of the gravity of these kinds of situations and are often concerned about their personal safety and that of their loved ones. Additionally, school and other mass shootings are now happening with such frequency that we cannot afford to think we are immune.
Our school is considered a Title 1 school and over 70% of our students receive free or reduced lunch. The majority of our students come from non-traditional households. Many of our families are single parent or even another relative (grandparents, aunt or uncle, older sibling). It is not unusual for a family to have transportation and technology issues. We also have a large population of English Language Learners from a variety of cultures: Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and the Caribbean. Despite this wide range of differences, Keene is a close-knit family.
I am dual certified, so I have Special Education students assigned to my room. These students’ IEPs range from Speech Therapy only, to Occupational Therapy, Learning Disabilities, Autism, and Severe Oppositional Disorders. There are also children with 504 Plans for Attention Deficit Disorder. I do have a full time Special Education teacher who comes in every other day and a para professional that comes in on the interim days. We find ways to motivate and engage these students by providing as many hands-on opportunities as possible.
Our current writing curriculum is specifically focused on nonfiction writing. It is not a curriculum that has been very popular at our school, at any grade-level, for various reasons. One major issue is the strong emphasis on mentor texts, but as is often the case in education, limited finances have left the provision of mentor texts largely to the classroom teacher. Most classroom teachers are equally limited financially, and even when possessing the funds have limited time, opportunity, and experience required to locate additional mentor texts. This is particularly true at the elementary level where writing is just one area of advanced preparation required of the classroom teacher.
I am never a proponent of a “one size fits all” approach to anything educational but there is a benefit to having a bank of educational resources available for the time crunched educator. In fact, much time has gone into banking many resources for reading and math for those purposes but somehow writing has gotten pushed off the plate a bit.
Our old statewide writing program had anchor papers and rubrics for teachers to share with students but they were set aside when we went from handwritten state testing to online only programs. We still utilize the rubrics but teachers are expected to know how to select mentor texts instead of using anchor papers. Having students work across grade levels to share mentor text-based writing builds in differentiation while giving immediate audience to our writers.
The unit will focus on identifying desired features of quality mentor essays or books to assist educators in making level appropriate selections to then explicitly teach these same features to students. Through a workshop approach, both teacher and students will then use the mentor essays to guide their own writing. The intent is to establish familiarity with author’s craft through building and using a mentor text library while engaging in an authentic writing process. Additionally, writing work will be shared across grade-levels to increase engagement and provide audience and authentic purpose to the student authors. Rigor in writing is achieved when “we bring complex ideas and sentence structures to students through well chosen mentor texts, we give them a vision of what is possible, and they have a model they can aspire to emulate.”4
As part of building the author’s craft, the unit will include students keeping a “Noticing Notebook” for anecdotes, descriptions, interviews and vocabulary. I feel that this approach will effectively model techniques that encourage risk taking in writing. Sharing my own writing challenges and processes with my students allows them to feel more comfortable making their own attempts. Working with peer and role-model writers, as well as being a role-model creates another level of authenticity to students’ writing tasks.
Good or Quality Writing
“Good.” Funny that an adjective that we constantly advise our students to avoid should be such an elusive, desirable descriptor for our most coveted examples of writing. Maybe it is the word’s humble Germanic origin which somehow makes it a heartfelt honor. Maybe we subconsciously prefer it to the highbrow Latinate word “quality” because we want to know what is important down at the bare bones level. Consider, one of the greatest compliments we can give someone is that he or she is a “Good Person.”
So, back to the burning question, “What makes it good writing?”
Pre-Common Core era, my district like many others followed a writing framework based on writing traits, such as Six Traits5 and Six plus One Traits.6 These programs utilized rubrics to specifically assess qualities of good writing. With the adoption of Common Core, these writing programs were widely set aside as lacking a sufficient research base and limited inclusion of nonfiction writing instruction. My district adopted a program called “Explorations in Nonfiction Writing.” which specifically calls for the use of Mentor Texts, models of writing that are explicitly shared with students as examples. This was not really a new concept, just a formal label for something many teachers already did. The bigger shift here was the emphasis on the nonfiction. But teachers need to think about nonfiction in a larger context than just informational text or biographies. Enter the Modern Essay.
The Modern Essay.
In her presentation Politics and The Modern Essay Jessica Brantley who heads the Yale English Department clarifies that the term “modern” here should not be confused with “contemporary.”7 Most writings associated with Modern Essays are from the late 1800’s to the present.8 This is when writing and literary circles began to form and expand to include not just the established authors but the rise of unknown and would be authors. There was a movement away from writing belonging only to the privileged but also to the working man. Here, too, we begin to see the growing force of women writers. These writing circles were the forerunners of today’s writers’ workshop.
The Modern Essay is “a forum for writers to investigate and present their opinions, concerns, and interests from a personal point of view using a variety of forms, including letters, reviews, criticism, memoirs, nature and travel writing, philosophical and ethical meditations, and newspaper and magazine columns.”9 This nonfiction writing allows students “to write about what they know or can observe or can find out…about subjects that touch their own lives or that they have an aptitude for.”10
Unlike larger works of writing, essays seek to convey their key information in a shorter, tighter format. Essays are snapshots as opposed to full length feature films. A perfect example is memoir which focuses on specific life events, or time frames, in comparison to autobiography which tells a whole life story. Memoirs in a published book are typically a collection of snapshot essays and aren’t even necessarily in chronological order.
Essays exemplify clear choices writers make involving words. The words they choose, how they use them, their sentence structure and tone all culminate in the style of both the writer and the piece. The use of dialogue that draws the reader in and a public point that reaches out are two other defining points found in these essays.
Always I heard Mother’s emotional voice asking Amy and me the same few questions: Is that your own idea? Or somebody else’s? “Giant is a good movie,” I pronounced to the family at dinner. “Oh, really?” Mother warmed to these occasions. She all but rolled up her sleeves. She knew I hadn’t seen it. “Is that your considered opinion?”11
In this example and the opening quote, the author uses highly detailed descriptions and dialogue to introduce us to her mother’s wit. Throughout her essay, what may initially appear as a random collection of humorous anecdotes is a finely crafted vehicle for telling us about life shaping lessons imparted by her mother. What she chooses to include gives us a balanced view of her mother that doesn’t seek to make her heroine or villain, but simply human. We, the readers, can connect with her humanity, and by extension the life lesson. The author isn’t simply sitting around fondly recalling her mother; she has something else to say, a public point.
Public Point: This is not a straightforward, find it in the dictionary (or writing handbook for that matter) kind of point. A public point is slightly more nuanced than that. We used it to discuss every essay we studied during our Yale Seminar and settled on a descriptor rather than a definition.
A “public point” is a quality in a written piece that makes it of value to others besides the author. This quality is what differentiates writing that has value purely for ourselves and writing that serves to connect with a greater audience. If I mess up as a mother and journal about my overwhelming feelings of guilt, my writing serves to relieve my own inner turmoil, a worthwhile and desirable outcome. That doesn’t mean anyone else would want to read my journal. If, however, I hope my writing might help other mothers not feel so miserable about their own mistakes I must craft an essay to which they may relate, one that is both personal and universal, simultaneously.
I would ask her later about the transmission of fear. She would answer honestly but gently, not wanting to hurt my feelings, watching all my micro expressions to see when and how much to modify her reaction…all while I watched hers. Ours was a dance of empathy, navigating our evolving relationship from traditional mother/daughter to empowering, uplifting female friendship. She inherited her father’s quick wit and sharp humor, noticing everything about others, while also inheriting my penchant for considering the unseen factors that motivate others’ actions. It makes her wonderfully insightful. Unfortunately, she also inherited every possible anxiety both her father and I possess. I supposed she and I would have a philosophical discussion on “nature vs. nurture”, did she inherit the worries, or did we transmit them with our overprotective parenting. The conversation would invariably dabble into “first child syndrome” and gender bias takes, as well. It would not be the first of these conversations.12
Public point can be shaped by many other aspects of writing such as: audience, purpose, point of view, bias, culture, voice, word choice, style and so on. There may also be more than one public point in a written piece but not in such a way as to detract from the central point. A public point may be implicit or explicit, open for authors’ expression and readers’ interpretation. Lastly, public point transcends genre.13
In the following excerpt from “The Year of Magical Thinking” author Joan Didion shows us the importance of word choice both explicitly and by example.
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact. For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.14
It is not just individual word choice but the way in which we put them together. In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell states:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?15
One of my favorite sayings has always been “If I had more time, I would have made this shorter” which I originally learned was from Benjamin Franklin but since discovered that it has been used repeatedly, in various forms and languages, tracing back to the 1600s.16 Regardless who said it first, it has been well worth repeating; good writing shows an economy of language.
Concise writing is not necessarily sparse. If words and sentences are the goods of language’s economy, then style, voice and ideas must be the demands. A call for brevity however can seem counterproductive to teachers who are typically having to beseech their students to “write more.” We still want students to develop their ideas.
In the following excerpt from Zora’s Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me” written in 1928, the author’s use of long listing sentences followed with shorter ones draw the reader into her contrasting childhood experiences.
During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me “speak pieces” and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop. Only they didn’t know it. The colored people gave no dimes. They deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county— everybody’s Zora.
We can feel the performance nature of her brief interactions with white people, and the quick jolt back to her colored reality, but she doesn’t feel jaded because she still feels treasured in her own community, “everybody’s Zora.” As we continue through this essay, Zora’s perspective becomes increasingly informed and mature, but she maintains her style. The author’s voice and style make it clear that she never loses her sense of worth and ends by inviting readers into a well-developed metaphor to reassess our own perspectives. The metaphor is so clearly constructed that I developed a related writing lesson in the Classroom Activities section.
But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first- water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held— so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place— who knows?17
Content Instructional Strategies
A 2017 New York Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write” by Dana Goldstein says recent studies have shown that most teachers lack both the training and confidence to teach writing in depth. In fact, “According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.”18
Lack of specific pre-service training and limited applications for writing leads many of us to lack writing confidence. Specifically, deep confidence. As a writer I have typically felt competent more often than confident.
Reflections of a competent writer
I grew up diagramming sentences in school and practicing the rules of grammar. I have no memory of doing any creative writing until eighth grade when we had a “poet in residence” who came regularly to our English class. While I have forgotten details surrounding that experience, I have held onto a technique he taught us. Each day he would have us write for three minutes with the only condition being that we kept writing the entire time. Knowing the challenge that simple request held, he told us, “If you get stuck, write your last word three more times. By the third time something else will come to you.” He didn’t care about the format or the content, he just wanted us to get words and ideas on paper. From there we pulled language or ideas that interested us for our poetry and story writing. When the writing failed to produce anything we found worthy of using, we sometimes repeated the process.
At first we dreaded this daily practice but quickly learned to enjoy it. Not only did it give us freedom to just write our thoughts, it also freed us from “doing it wrong”. There were no constraints of sentence construction although we were invited to “fix that sort of thing” once the initial writing time was up. We subsequently created a bank of writing material that improved over time. Some days we wrote better than others or had more to say. Some days the writing looked like some bizarre Mad Lib19 entry with random adjectives and multiple words written in triplicate. When we looked at this writing for further inspiration, we were looking for what sparked interest or moved us, often sharing portions aloud. We became a community of writers through these practices. It is my only school writing experience that stands out to me.
Perhaps our poet in residence was familiar with the work of Peter Elbow. In the 1998 twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book “Writing without Teachers”20 Peter Elbow reflects on his frustrations that brought him to writing the book initially and the techniques he used to overcome them. Not only is the sentiment essential to rethinking the way we approach rigor in writing but is itself an example of a well-constructed paragraph. He says:
I could write decent stuff if I let go of planning, control, and vigilance. I had to write down without stopping whatever came to me in my thinking about my general topic, and above all I had to stop worrying about whether what I was writing at the moment was any good. I had to invite chaos and bad writing. Then, after I had written a lot and figured out a lot of thinking, I could go back and find order and reassert control and try to make it good. If I wanted to get quality—indeed if I wanted to finish the job at all—I had to invite garbage and nonsense.21
Like many of our students, I grew up attributing some higher-level talent or gift to published writers. I viewed “Real Writers” as artists. I somehow internalized a “you either have it or you don’t” mindset when it came to published writers. I don’t mean to imply that I thought regular writers couldn’t grow and improve, but somehow that there was an upper echelon of writers that was unattainable without being naturally gifted. I gave up on being anything other than a technically good, competent writer. Unfortunately, many of our students give up long before even feeling competent.
How is it possible that I have so little recollection of writing instruction in school and yet still ended up feeling at least competent?
Well: I always got good grades on my writing in school; People have told me I’m a good writer; I’ve done very well with any academic and professional writing coursework; I enjoy writing (for myself); People ask me for advice about their writing; I like the way my writing sounds when I really work at it and the images I am able to create........create, create, create. And there it is! A whole bunch of nothing, ending with a maybe something…
Somehow rigor in writing instruction is associated with sentence correctness and students’ ability to perform well on isolated writing tasks, rather than doing the work of writers. Despite Peter Elbow’s observations and recommendations from fifty years ago, we are still waging this battle as evidenced by John Warner’s 2018 book, “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.” Warner argues that rather than focusing on constructing sentences as a starting point, we need to guide students to begin with an idea so that “the desire to share it provides the necessary intrinsic motivation to find the precise language to do so.” He goes on to explain that sentence writing challenges while obvious in young students, are truthfully still naturally present throughout writing experiences. In his strongest statements Warner says that we are withholding “the best part of writing – the ideas…the most pleasurable and motivating part” by first requiring students to perfect sentence writing. And most powerfully, “Writing is thinking, and I have yet to meet a writer who thinks in sentences. To suggest that we must know sentences before we start to write is a lie.”22
Reflections of a confident writer
I like the way my writing sounds when I really work at it and the images I create.
This is a key element for writers, enjoying the creative process. We want students to enjoy working to make the language sound a certain way, to create certain images, the way they imagine them. In his widely used guidebook “On Writing Well” William Zinsser tells us “I’m more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing – confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity.”23
In the New York Times article mentioned above, one of the approaches to writing instruction was described as “A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers.”24 In seminar we also talked about a distinguishing feature of rhythm, a lyrical quality, that is often found in good writing. In his chapter on “The Sound of Your Voice,” Zinsser describes this as “a mixture of qualities that are beyond analyzing: [having] an ear that can hear the difference between a sentence that limps and a sentence that lilts.”25
When I work with my students to sound out words when reading I tell them to try sounding out the word with the different possible vowel sounds (a short vs. a long vowel sound) and see which way sounds correct when they say it or read it with the rest of the sentence. Another popular trick I use, and teach, is writing a word multiple ways to see which one looks correctly spelled. This is a visual rather than auditory check for correctness. These same techniques can be expanded to explore word choice, plus sentence structure and sequence.
The problem with these auditory and visual recognition strategies is the large number of children who simply do not have the background knowledge to make these distinctions. Often these students are English Language Learners, were never read to, have limited access to reading materials or even have other physical restrictions that limit their interactions with spoken or written materials.
I may not recall much about being taught writing growing up, but I have vivid recollections of how much I was taught about books. I was privileged to grow up in a house that valued and supported reading with lots of books. But even without that external piece, my school experiences were heavily focused on reading. Not only were we given opportunities to regularly read independently, we talked about stories, our teachers read aloud daily, we studied authors and classic literature. I believe that it was being steeped in examples of good writing that helped me discern whether I had succeeded with a piece of my own writing. Sharing mentor texts regularly, explicitly teaching their features in the classroom will help to build that recognition in all learners.
Metacognition – The Writer on Writing
Teachers know all about the “Think Alouds.” Describing our thinking as we read or write is probably one of the most common techniques we do share when it comes to our writing instruction. I think this is an area where our instruction would benefit if we purposefully “lean into it,” as our Seminar Leader Jessica Brantley would say.
The first part of that would be really digging into our own experiences and struggles with the writing process in an honest but hopeful dialogue. We can model critical but constructive self-talk surrounding the hard work of writing.
The second part of this involves insight from the experts. So many accomplished writers have shared essays on their personal writing experiences and processes. Unlike L. Frank Baum’s character, the mysterious Oz who urges us to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”26 most successful authors are open to sharing their thought processes, tips and strategies that help them. Because teachers are expected to model our writing process, and think aloud as we do so, these successful writers provide mentor texts on metacognition. Joan Didion continues to share her writing reflections,
I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become…27
I think of my own misconceptions surrounding the idea that writers had some special gift I wasn’t privy to. I am reminded of Patricia Polacco’s autobiographical book, “Thank You, Mr. Falker” where the young dyslexic Trisha looks at the other kids reading aloud, staring at the top of their heads, trying to decipher what magic was happening inside.28 Students need and want to see inside writers’ heads, see how they came up with all those ideas and then shared them on paper.
Digging into the writers’ experiences helps us understand that revision is an ongoing process in writing, not a stage or something that happens after. When students perceive writing in distinct stages or as a single assignment task then they are very reluctant to make changes; they just want to be done. I wish I could share with you all the versions of this unit that have come before so you could see all the cuts, the patches, the reworks and reinventions. We need to share multiple versions of our writing with students. In his book “After THE END” Barry Lane shares that “even a first draft is a revision of all the words I have left to write.”29 He goes on, “Each word I write revises a hundred others I could have written, and when I go back to change passages I am always looking to measure what’s there on the page against the wealth of unwritten material floating in my mind.”30 If we think about the economy of language, words represent an “opportunity cost”; the words we put to paper come at the expense of the words we leave off. Revision is an exploration, an integral part of a writer’s craft.
Authors are observers and recorders, actively investigating life. Model this practice. Teach your students to keep a writing notebook or journal. They should fill it with questions, ideas, quotes, perceptions and more. Joan Didion began her first notebook at age five. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook” Joan writes that the content of her notebook isn’t necessarily “factual” but about how something felt to her, “…bits of the mind’s strings too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”31We can learn much from the types of information writers keep in their journals. Edith Wharton was a highly successful American essayist and novelist from the early 1900s. The expression “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to be inspired by both her family and the society about which she wrote. Edith kept a composition notebook spanning 1924-1934 with the following opening entry: “Quaderno dello studente” – I like the name of this copy-book, which I bought here the other day. It encourages me to begin. Perhaps at last I shall be able to write down some disconnected thoughts, old & new – gather together the floating scraps of experience that have lurked for years in corners of my mind.32 Three years later, on the inside cover of the notebook, Edith added “If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me. E.W 1927.”33 Other writers have whole collections of journals. Ralph Waldo Emerson began journaling in college and filled a hundred volumes over his lifetime. Many of his essays were born from these journals which were then published in their entirety after his death.34 Norton’s Anthology also includes examples from Thoreau, Didion, Plath and more.
Writing and writer’s workshop should be a daily practice in all classrooms, therefore no time frames have been applied to this unit. The beauty of essays as mentor texts is that they are available in a wide variety of genres, modes and themes.35 This is the perfect way to integrate cross-curricular content.
Just a Few Suggestions:
Science – memoirs, profiles of a person or place, op-eds, arguments, natural histories
Social Studies – cultural analysis, op-eds, arguments, speeches, historical narratives
Mathematics – argument, proposals, reports, visual analysis, profiles
For Language Arts I offer a few specific activities to get things started. These are generalized activities that will touch on the standards below throughout their completion.
1) Meet Me Here – Group Introductory Activity
Mentor Text – Lion: A Long Way Home a Young Readers’ Edition, Saroo Brierly36
Personal Narrative (Memoir.) Chosen as an example of telling important “bits” about yourself to help others understand you better. The author recounts his experiences as a very young boy lost in India, his subsequent adoption, and his adult quest to discover his original home and family. His story was eventually made into the movie Lion in 2016. Text is also useful for profile of a place and profile of a person. For this activity read the first chapter.
Part of establishing community in the classroom is sharing about ourselves and what experiences we are bringing to our new family. This particular text was chosen because it uses a combination of specific details and general impressions of a child. The experiences shared are both difficult and uplifting so students can understand that both are fairly normal parts of life. It also illustrates the use of another form of writing (the map) that can help represent life experiences, and its ongoing revision/additions. Our experiences surrounding our location, where we are coming from, give us some common ground to set up our new community.
After workshopping these details about the text, as a group we will begin drafting our own essays regarding ourselves and where we live. Because our school is largely populated by a geographical feeder pattern, many students will have overlapping areas, while others who may be choiced to our school may be separate. In the initial stages I will share my writing using think alouds to show what is challenging and how I am making my choices. Students will eventually be asked to share their work, too.
We will create a map based on our experiences. This map will be revised and expanded throughout the school year. The map becomes a touch point for seeing commonalities and differences in our classroom and school community. It also allows us to differentiate what lies outside the school and what lies within, create an enveloping effect to support often stressed students. The map can also become a springboard for future essays.
2) What’s on the Inside Counts – Identity and Diversity Activity
Mentor Text – Final Paragraph in Zora Hurston’s What it Means to be Colored Me
Nonfiction Narrative – Metaphor. Chosen as an example of voice and style illustrated through word choice and sentence structure. Author explores her identity and diversity through a metaphor of items contained in different colored bags.
In a reimagining of a traditional classroom “get to know you” activity – “All About Me Bags”, students will be given a gallon sized Ziploc bag to collect 5-10 items that they feel are representative of their life so far. They will be instructed to create a list of their bag’s contents and why each item was chosen, or how it represents them. They may do this independently or with the help of family/guardian if needed. Students should know that they will be sharing this information with the class eventually but should initially turn the bags into the teacher privately and not share their written list with other students.
Teacher should privately layout and photo-document each bag’s contents.
Randomly place Ziploc bags inside opaque stereotypic bags either gender biased or color biased but do not identify contents. It is best to not number or letter label the bags because there are biases associated with those labels, as well. Students should then complete one or more of the following activities.
- Have students try to guess which bag contains their own items and why.
- Students try to match bags to other students and support their choices.
- Using 10 separate teacher selected items, have students write which bag should hold each item and why.
Have a group discussion regarding the results of the activities and their thoughts surrounding them. (Be sure that clear guidelines are established for safe community conversations prior to taking on this type of activity.)
Read Zora Hurston’s paragraph. Discuss how she uses word choice and sentence structure to present her idea. Have students identify the metaphor and discuss their thoughts about its meaning. Ask students to relate the metaphor to the bag activity done in class. What do they notice about their choices, are they rethinking anything and why. Have students use their list to write their own paragraph following the mentor format and metaphor. Empty all bags into a central location. Ask students to consider what things are in-common or interchangeable and what things are unique.
Workshop the paragraphs, model teacher writing using the items you selected.
Use photo-documentation to return all items to original owners.
3) And Now Presenting… – Profile Essay
Mentor Text – It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Adapted for Young Readers) Chapter 537
Profile of a Person/Place. Chosen because it showcases both the author’s mother and the place where they lived. Discuss the way the author uses situations to help the reader learn about the character of his mother and the conditions of apartheid under which he lived. Lead students to identify how the writing shows rather than tells us deeper information. Highlight the author’s personal interactions and feelings that bring both his mother and their living environment to life. Question what sensory images are used to connect the reader to his story.
Following the lessons on the mentor text, have students employ similar techniques to write their own profile essay. They may do either a person or place profile or may choose to combine them. Model teacher writing and workshop group’s essays.
4) Noticing Notebooks – Writers’ Notebook
Mentor Text – Teacher’s Notebook
Keep one yourself that you share with them. Provide opportunities in class for them to use them. This is also a place for them to note inspiration and quotes from mentor texts. This notebook doesn’t necessarily need to be restricted to writing but can include graphics and even taped/glued in content, like my fortune cookie slip from lunch today that said, “Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” (attributed to Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures”)38
Suggested Student Readings
Utilize your library and librarian for mentor texts in addition to your classroom library, grade level collections and anthologies. To grow your personal collection in a budget friendly manner, make regular trips to Goodwill and other thrift stores and your local dollar store. Team up with colleagues to share/swap materials. Don’t forget periodicals, newspapers and a wealth of online resources, too. Some suggestions are: Cricket Media (multiple), Time for Kids, National Geographic Kids, Stone Soup, Ranger Rick, Zoobooks, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Highlights. Book recommendations contain nonfiction and realistic fiction choices. The realistic fiction sources were included to utilize resources teachers may already have that closely mimic nonfiction, illustrate aspects of the writing process or tackle difficult topics for younger students. While you should always check for age appropriate content and language, don’t be afraid to read higher level books aloud to young students so they can listen to well crafted writing, and don’t be afraid to use picture books with older students. Seek examples that both mirror existing cultures in your classroom and introduce new ones, too. Ask your students to look for their own examples to share with the class to analyze for good writing qualities. Focus more on excerpts that meet your topic than the complete text. See Annotated Bibliography for specific recommendations.
Suggested Teacher Readings
Read essays, they are the antidote to teachers’ lack of time ailments. Utilize the same sources for yourself that you do for students; borrow, share, sample. Go on Amazon and use the preview features (try the free kindle reader app for your computer) to read passages from different authors and genres. Use bibliography/reference sections from your readings to discover new directions (teach this to students, also.) The annotated unit bibliography below is a good starting place.
125 True Stories of Amazing Pets: Inspiring Tales of Animal Friendship & Four-Legged Heroes, plus Crazy Animal Antics. 2014. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. Nonfiction animal stories.
Bauermeister, Erica. 2010. The School of Essential Ingredients. New York: Berkley Books.
(Teacher) Realistic Fiction - Profiles of people, richly detailed. Also a foodie novel. I love it for the beautiful sound of the language and the metaphors.
Bauermeister, Erica. 2013. The Lost Art of Mixing. New York: Berkley.
Realistic Fiction - Companion book to The School of Essential Ingredients. This one in particular includes use of writing notebooks and interviewing/profiling a person.
Bolick, Kate. 2016. Spinster. New York, NY Crown.
(Teacher) Memoir that braids profiles of great women writers with social commentary on female independence and personal reflection. Bonus: Dollar Store Find!
Brierley, Saroo, Larry Buttrose, and Nan McNab. 2017. Lion: a Long Way Home. NY, NY: Puffin Books.
Memoir - Young readers edition. Adoption, childhood trauma, poverty, culture. Used in classroom activities section.
Bruchac, Joseph. 2003. Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling. Golden, Colo: Fulcrum Pub.
Historical narrative - Indigenous cultures. Be sure to check out other titles by this author.
Clark, Roy Peter. 2017. Writing Tools 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Brantford, Ontario: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.
Tips and tricks for writers. Great resource.
Corrigan, Kelly. 2015. Glitter and Glue: a Memoir. New York: Ballantine Books.
(Teacher) Memoir - Family relations, love, illness and loss, Excerpts good for mentor texts such as dialogue and profile of a person. Bonus: Dollar Store Find!
Draper, Sharon M. 2019. Blended. S.l.: Atheneum Childrens Books.
Realistic fiction - Divorce, biracial, racial profiling.
Draper, Sharon M. 2019. Out of My Mind. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, Library.
Realistic Fiction - Communication disorders, physical disabilities, power of words.
Elkins, Arlene Hess. 2018. Captured!: A True Tale of Escape, Capture, Rescue and Faith. Greenwood, IN: OMS International.
Memoir - Christian Missionary children put in internment camp in the Philippines following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Does have religious basis and references.
Goldthwaite, Melissa A., Joseph Bizup, John C. Brereton, Anne E. Fernald, and Linda H. Peterson. 2017. The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Get Full Edition in print or online. This is an excellent compilation of mentor essays plus a solid overview of Genre. Modes, and Themes.
Gruenbaum, Michael, and Todd Hasak-Lowy. 2018. Somewhere There Is Still a Sun: a Memoir of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Memoir - A survivor's look back.
Guerrero, Diane, and Erica Moroz. 2019. My Family Divided: One Girls Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope. New York: Square fish, Henry Holt and Company.
(Upper Grade) Memoir - Immigration, deportation issues.
Hest, Amy. 1996. Jamaica Louise James. London: Walker.
Realistic Fiction - Great for illustrating dialogue and details but also highlights being an observer in your community.
Hest, Amy. 2010. Remembering Mrs. Rossi. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
(Student) Realistic fiction surrounding loss of a parent, value of writing for remembering.
Hiranandani, Veera. 2013. The Whole Story of Half a Girl. New York: Yearling.
Realistic fiction - bicultural issues, job loss, family difficulties,
Hiranandani, Veera. 2019. The Night Diary. Nw Jersey: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Realistic fiction - religious conflict and discrimination, immigration.
Hoge, Robert. 2015. Ugly: a Beaut Story about One Very Ugly Kid. Sydney, N.S.W.: Lothian Childrens Books.
Memoir - Perseverance, disabilities, bullying.,
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. 2014. One for the Murphys. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.
Realistic fiction - foster care, childhood trauma and abuse.
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. 2015. Fish in a Tree. New York, NY: Puffin Books.
Realistic fiction - Learning differences, dyslexia giftedness, bullying, poverty., writing.
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly. 2019. Shouting at the Rain. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Realistic fiction - Parental loss/abandonment, nontraditional families, friendships.
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World: Young Readers Edition. 2016. Paw Prints.
Memoir - Perseverance, cultural identity
Johnson, Charles Richard. 2016. The Way of the Writer: Reflection on the Art and Craft of Storytelling. New York: Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Despite a focus on writing fiction, the author is an accomplished essayist and long time professor of writing instruction with loads of guidance.
Landau, Elaine. 2008. Ellis Island. New York: Childrens Press.
Read this one in conjunction with At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices.
Lane, Barry. 2016. After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Revision is writing! Excellent easy resource for classroom instruction.
Maran, Meredith. 2013. Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. New York: Plume.
Getting inside writers' heads and learning their struggles and processes.
Maran, Meredith. 2016. Why We Write About Ourselves. Penguin Publishing Group.
Getting inside the head of the memoir writer. Check out the chapter on Kelly Corrigan, author of Glitter and Glue, also on this list.
Mendoza, Jean, Debbie Reese, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. 2019. An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States for Young People. Boston: Beacon Press.
Morgan, Alex. 2017. Breakaway: beyond the Goal. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.
Memoir - Motivational, sports related.
Moss, Marissa. 2006. Amelia’s Notebook. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Realistic fiction - Journal keeping, Whole series.
Noah, Trevor. 2019. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. New York: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.
Memoir - Racism, poverty and domestic violence. Profiles people, places and cultural issues with candor and humor. Use Young Reader Edition for students.
OFarrell, Maggie. 2018. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: a Memoir. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
(Teacher) Memoir - Powerful writing around themes of near-death experiences, significant illnesses and vulnerability
Peacock, Louise, and Walter Krudop. 2007. At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Historrical narrative - Multicultural, immigration.
Polacco, Patricia. 2012. Thank You, Mr. Falker. New York: Philomel Books.
Memoir - Learning differences, dyslexia, dysgraphia, bullying. Be sure to check out her other titles which are varied in content.
Ravin, Idan. 2015. The Hoops Whisperer: on the Court and inside the Heads of Basketballs Best Players. New York: Avery.
Memoir - Motivational, sports related
Rhodes, Jewell Parker. 2019. Ghost Boys. Little, Brown.
Historical fiction - tying in historical racial violence with modern day racial profiling, Black Lives Matter. (Ghosts as narrators prevents realistic fiction label)
Salie, Faith. 2017. Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much. New York: Three Rivers Press.
(Teacher) Memoir - Humorous, self-deprecating snapshots of a comedian and journalist. Filled with literary references and social commentary. Bonus: Dollar Store Find!
Shelnutt, Eve, ed. 1991. The Confidence Woman: 26 Women Writers at Work. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press.
Collection of women writers reflecting on their work.
Sloan, Holly Goldberg. 2017. Counting by 7s. Brantford, Ontario: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.
Realistic Fiction - Giftedness, adoption, death of parents, social integration issues.
Sullivan, John Jeremiah. 2011. Pulphead: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Variety of essays including profiles of people and places. Excellent for excerpts and building teacher experiences of well-crafted essays.
Wamariya, Clemantine, and Elizabeth Weil. 2018. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: a Story of War and What Comes After. New York, NY: Crown.
(Teacher/Upper Grades) Memoir - Firsthand account of survival as a child refugee and the struggle to assimilate trauma and build a new life.
Warner, John. 2018. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rethink the emphasis on writing formats. Remember "Risk Before Rigor"
Weintraub, Robert. 2019. No Better Friend (Young Readers Edition): A Man, a Dog, and Their Incredible True Story of Friendship and Survival in World War II. New York: Little, Brown & Company.
Wharton, Edith, and Laura Rattray. 2009. The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton. Vol. 2. 2 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto.
Example of writing revision and writer's notebook.
Woodson, Jacqueline. 2019. Brown Girl Dreaming. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.
Memoir - Poetic prose
Zinsser, William. 2017. On Writing Well. Harper Paperbacks.
Must have handbook for Nonfiction writing.
Appendix on Implementing District Standards
The State of Delaware along with 40 other states has adopted the Common Core State Standards.39 Because this unit is intended to be utilized across grade levels, the standards listed are anchor standards rather than grade-level specific. While the standards below are focused on English/Language Arts, selecting mentor texts that focus on other content areas would allow those standards to be addressed, too. The following are the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards as they apply to the different facets of the unit.
Reading - Mentor Texts
When it comes to utilizing mentor texts, these are the skills and concepts teachers need to first model for students, then scaffold student and text interactions working towards students’ independent abilities. Use a variety of mentor texts, forms and genres to give students deeper understanding. These standards are the tools we use to dig into writers’ practices and choices.
Craft and Structure:
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text
Writing – Essays and other writing practice
Students will be utilizing the techniques learned from mentor texts to guide their own writing experiences. Students will focus on nonfiction writing as communication, a means to express their ideas on a variety of topics and experiences. There is opportunity for research in any nonfiction writing so the knowledge standards for research do not only apply to report writing.
Text Types and Purposes
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
Range of Writing:
Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
Speaking and Listening - Writers’ Workshop
The use of a workshop approach builds life-long communication skills. It is the focus on writing as an ongoing process rather than a string of independent assignments. These standards highlight the importance of author and audience interactions.
Comprehension and Collaboration:
Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
- Annie Dillard from An American Childhood The Norton Reader and The Little Seagull Handbook with Exercises (Fourteenth Edition) (p. 99). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
- Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2018) 142
- Frasher, Jennifer Jump YNI 2019
- Hoyt, Linda and Stead, Tony, Explorations in Nonfiction Writing Mentor Texts, Heinemen 2012,
- Jessica Brantley (?)
- Zinsser, William On Writing Well p 99
- Dillard, Annie, Excerpt from An American Childhood, Norton Reader 115
- Frasher, Jennifer, The Beach Essay, YNI 2019
- Seminar definition
- Didion, Joan (2007-02-12T22:58:59). The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage International) . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- The Norton Reader and The Little Seagull Handbook with Exercises (Fourteenth Edition) W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition 516
- The Norton Reader and The Little Seagull Handbook with Exercises (Fourteenth Edition). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.44-45
- Elbow, Peter (1998-06-24T23:58:59). Writing without Teachers . Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.144
- Zinsser, William On Writing Well p xi
- Zinsser, William On Writing Well p 235
- Noel Langley, Wizard of OZ screenplay for MGM movie
- Patricia Polacco, Thank You, Mr. Falker
- Lane, Barry After THE END p 5
- The Norton Reader p 86-7
- “The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton” p 211
- Ibid p 208
- The Norton Reader p 90
- The Norton Reader, Genre Index, Modes Index, Thematic Index
- Brierley, Saroo (2014-06-11T23:58:59). A Long Way Home . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Noah, Trevor. Its Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Adapted for Young Readers). Delacorte Press, 2019.
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