More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.

Information Writing for Dummies

Frequently as I look at the Common Core Standards for writing with teachers, a question keeps cropping up: Is there still a place for genre studies? These teachers and I know that narrative, information and opinion writing are not genres per se. They’re more like modes, which Katie Wood Ray defines in her wonderful book on inquiry-based writing units Study Driven as “the meaning ‘work’ that a writer is doing in a text.” Thus narration is the mode writers uses when they mean to tell a story, while information writing, a.k.a. exposition, is the mode for the work of explaining ideas or conveying information.

Genres, on the other hand, are what a writer makes with writing: a book review, a short story, an editorial, a feature article. These genres often employ more than one mode; a feature article, for instance, might begin by narrating an anecdote about the topic, then shift into exposition and end with some argumentation (another mode) that reveals the writer’s opinion.

The beauty of genres is that they can be studied in a way that gives students a concrete vision of what their work can look and sound like. This kind of study also invites students to be more intentional and artful as they apprentice themselves to master craftsmen and wordsmiths in a way that matches my favorite definition of a writer, which comes by way of Saul Bellow:

A writer is a reader who is moved to emulate.

The Common Core Standards don’t mention genres, though neither do they explicitly prohibit us from studying them. And so I encourage teachers to remember their right to implement the Standards as they best see fit, knowing that the benefits of such study are huge. First, closely studying great texts as writers gives students more options of how to organize and convey information than the deadly structure of the formulaic three- or five-paragraph essay, which at its worst asks students to first tell your reader what your going to tell them, then tell them what you said you were going to tell them, and then end by re-telling them what you just told them.

Studying genres also requires students to understand whatever they’re writing about deeply. And as such, the end products are often better assessments of content understanding than forms that encourage students to pluck and insert undigested facts. The third graders I wrote about last fall, for instance, who emulated G. Brian Karas’s Atlantic to write their “I Am China” books fully owned the information they presented. And eighth grade science students using the same mentor text to creatively write about the rock cycle came up with fresh language—such as, “Some of my minerals dissolve in water the way marshmallows melt in hot chocolate.”—which assured their teacher that they’d learned the content.

Finally (as I prepare to shift from argumentation back to exposition), there’s the fact that engaging in the same decision-making process that real writers engage in makes students better readers. For in considering what point of view or structure will achieve the effects they’re after and deliberating on exactly which details will best suit and support their purposes, students become more aware of the intentionality in an author’s choices. They see that those details and structures carry meaning, which positions them to attend to the meaning of the choices they encounter when they read other writers.

When it comes to information writing, I’ve helped teachers design units of study on feature articles, All About Books, and creative nonfiction like Atlantic. And I’ve invited students to study Dummies books, which they’ve then emulated to convey information about all sorts of topics, from babysitting to ballroom dancing to learning Albanian. Whatever the grade, these units begin by students first exploring some sample Dummies books to discover what they can about their structure and features. And from that, we co-construct a chart of what we learned, like this typed-up one from a fifth grade room that was writing Dummies books about topics of their own choice:

Then we look more carefully at how they’re written by studying two samples, such as these excerpts from Drawing Cartoons and Comics for Dummies and Cake Decorating for Dummiesto consider what might be similar in terms of word choice, voice, syntax,  and tone. (Tip: Looking at two samples allows students to move beyond the specifics of the content to notice similarities or patterns in craft.)

 

Here students are often able to notice that the writer talks to the reader directly, through the frequent use of the word ‘you,’ in a friendly and supportive way, and that he or she uses a range of punctuation—including ellipses, parentheses, dashes and exclamation points—to create a strong, flexible voice. Dummies writers also tend to use multiple examples of lists that follow the Rule of Three—such as three excuses for not decorating a special cake or three reasons why cartoons are important—which helps elaborate and support their ideas and creates a richer texture.

With these noticings in mind, I had the fifth grade students who created the above structure chart help me write the introduction to my topic, which was cooking my favorite food, pasta:

I imagine that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to shift from personal to more content-related topics, with students writing, say, Mummification or Renewable Energy or The Bill of Rights for Dummies. Such texts would surely be more fun to write and more fun to read than a five-paragraph essay while still accomplishing the meaning work of the mode and meeting the information writing Standard. And students would surely retain more of what they learned about both the content and writing because they’d be more engaged and proud of making such a product—especially when it’s graced with a classic yellow Dummies cover, which can either be drawn or made electronically through the Dummies Book Cover Maker online.

And isn’t that what really matters: holding on to learning and feeling the power of language to engage and inform us in so many ways? Let’s not forget that in the rush to meet all the bullet points of the Standards.

Beyond Counting Syllables: Thinking Through Haiku

The title for this week’s post is inspired by another of my favorite professional books, Thinking Through Genre by Heather Lattimer. In addition to providing readers with several genre-based units of study, such as memoir and feature articles, Lattimer offers a template and process for designing genre units in general, with goals and instructional focuses set for both reading and writing.

The process she maps out begins with the teacher immersing him or herself in the genre to be studied in order to consider to two critical questions: What do you want students to learn, understand and be able to do as a result of the study? and What about this genre is worthy of an ‘enduring understanding’—that is, why should we spend time reading and writing it?

To answer the second question, Lattimer looks at what specific genres do for us as readers and writers and how they affect us. Thinking through the genre of memoir, for instance, she writers:

“A good memoir will provide the reader with the opportunity to connect with the experience—to feel the emotions, empathize with the response, appreciate the learning that took place, and find community it what can be an isolating world. A great memoir will cause readers to reflect upon and better understanding their own lives and experience.”

And her immersion in feature articles leads her to this understanding:

“It should capture readers’ fascination and spark within them an intense desire to learn, not just about interesting people and place, but about ideas and perspectives.”

Thinking Through Genre doesn’t delve into poetry, let alone the sub-genre of haiku. But a few years ago I began using haiku in curriculum planning workshops to model Lattimer’s process in a way that I hoped would empower teachers to design genre units of their own. I begin, as Lattimer does, with immersion, sharing a handful of haiku, such as these which come from the journal “Modern Haiku“:

a jacket

on the playground fence

summer moon

Cor Van den Heuven

after the reindeer cookie

only a redhot

on her plate

Susan Delphine Delaney

stars at dawn:

the clatter of small change

on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson

I ask the workshop participants to read them, attending to both what they notice and how they’re affected as readers. And if you were like some of them, you may have found yourself counting the syllables and noticing that none of the above conformed to the usual 5-7-5 pattern. A bit of googling will reveal that the haiku formula we often teach in schools is an inaccurate translation of Japanese characters into western syllables. And while generally there are no more than 17 syllables in a haiku, neither the number of lines nor the syllables for each line are as rigid as we tend to teach them.

But then . . . if haiku is not a short poem composed of three lines that each have a specific number of syllables, what is it? What does it do for us as readers? How does it affect us? What makes it worthy of our consideration? What might we say is its essence?

When workshop participants go back to the poems without syllables on their minds, they begin to notice other things. Some notice that there seems to be a pattern, with one line establishing a season or time and the other two creating an image. Others say that each evokes a feeling in addition to an image; others notice that they’re composed primarily of concrete nouns. Still others think that each one captures a moment while also suggesting other moments or events, as if the captured moment contains not just the present but the past and future, too: We see the jacket on the playground fence, for instance, frozen in time like a photograph, but our minds also wander to what happened before that and what might happen afterwards, so that the present moment resonates with both the future and past.

Almost everyone, however, acknowledges that they’re not as simple as they first appear. You need to slow down and attend for a moment, so that reading the poem stops time as well. And it’s this ability of haiku to make us slow down and attend to the momentary particulars of the world that the great haiku critic and translator R. H. Blyth says is “the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Now that, it seems to me, is an enduring understanding worthy of true study. Thinking through haiku allows us to attend to the incandescence of individual moments, to stop and smell the proverbial roses in a way that makes us better appreciate the small wonders of world around us. And when we design instruction that helps students see this, first as readers then as writers, we get poems like these by three 8th graders, that have captured some of the essence of haiku:

Face lit by a screen

way past midnight

homework still not done

Nathan

Ferris Wheel seats

creak in the wind

Coney Island in November

Naomi

Cat’s sandpaper tongue

on my cheek

better than an alarm clock

Tryone

So attend to genre deeply, as haiku attends to the moment. And invite your students to do so as well. It is, indeed, a harder path, requiring that we connect with our own inner reader and not rely on someone else’s take. But it’s also more rewarding, for teachers and students alike.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.