Cracking Open the Word Craft

Cracking Open Nuts

For those of us who have taught writing workshop over the years, we tend to think of craft as the particular moves a writer makes that we can invite students to emulate in their own writing, such as using sensory details or repeating a line as structural device or refrain. Writers, we tell students, make these moves to engage their readers and bring whatever they’re writing about more vividly to life, which is indeed true. But that concept of craft is very different, I think, from what’s meant by the word in the Common Core Standards, where three “Craft and Structure” reading standards exist for both literary and information texts from kindergarten up to twelfth grade.

Those standards require students to consider the significance of, say, the particular sensory details a writer has chosen and to analyze how those choices contribute to the overall meaning or tone of a text. And if New York City is any indication, there’s a fair amount of contention brewing around those standards—especially in the way they were tested in the recent state ELA exams where students faced a barrage of multiple choice questions that asked them why an author used a particular word, detail or phrase in a given text. Many of the over 600 parents, principals and teachers who left comments on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project ELA feedback site, for instance, saw this as a troubling emphasis on minutia over big understandings, with Lucy Calkins, the Project Director, summing up those sentiments this way:

“. . . I think the test makers are interpreting the standards, even for 9 and 10 year olds, to be all about ultra-ultra-law-school-literary-criticism-level-close analytic reading, asking ‘why did the author include (mean by) X in line Y?’ and not at all about reading to acquire knowledge or construct big ideas about a comprehensible story. How will a test like this alter reading and writing curriculum, and will that yield a generation of engaged, curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers and writers?”

Rat DissectionI’ve made no bones about my fears of where curriculum is headed, and have questioned how certain models of close reading, which encourage students to dissect texts, like science lab mice, through teacher-driven text-dependent questions, can possibly yield those curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers that I, too, want students to be. But for all the questions and worries I have about analysis as the end goal of reading, I do think it’s important to ask students to consider the possible significance of details for authentic reasons.

Every time, for instance, that we infer a feeling or motivation from a detail a writer gives us, we’re engaged in thinking about the writer’s choices, automatically but invisibly asking ourselves, Why is the author telling me this? What is she trying to show me? That’s because thoughtful and knowledgeable readers know that, as I wrote in an earlier post about the writing mantra ‘show don’t tell,’ writers actually show and tell, through details they’ve purposefully chosen.

One Green AppleFrom a reader’s perspective then we can think of craft as how writers use and arrange specific details, words, images, and figurative language to convey their story’s meaning—i.e., to show and tell. And readers construct those desired big ideas by attending to and interpreting those choices.  Here, for instance, is a group of fifth graders I worked with recently reading Eve Bunting‘s great book One Green Apple, which tells the story of a girl named Farah who, having recently moved to America, takes a giant step toward belonging during a class field trip to an orchard.

If we stick to some of the common methods of thinking about theme or the gist of a story, such as thinking about what a character learned or using a Somebody Wanted Something But So chart, students may think that this is a story about the challenges of learning a new language. That certainly is something Bunting explores, but when I asked the students if they noticed any patterns—recurring words, details, images, ideas that the writer had purposely woven into the story—their thinking got much deeper.

As they made their way the first time through the story, they noticed how many details were about things that were different. There was Farah, herself, who was different from the others, the language she spoke, the head scarf she wore, the way boys and girls sat together, and the green apple of the title, which came from a tree that was different than the others. And as the story progressed, they noticed a shift, with fewer details about things that were different and more about things that were the same. The green apple was “small and alone” like Farah, and lots of sounds were described as being the same in America and Farah’s homeland, such as people laughing, sneezing and belching and dogs crunching on apples.

OneGreenApple2OneGreenApple3

Noticing all this allowed them to move beyond the lesson about learning English to something deeper that Eve Bunting seemed to be exploring through these patterns: how our similarities might be more important than our differences. And with this in mind, we revisited the story to develop and refine that idea, with the students noticing even more. They noticed that the day, itself, was different; that among the three dogs, one was different; that the words belong and blend were repeated; and that there were differences among the other children, with some being friendly and some smiling “cruel smiles.”

They also took another look at a page that had puzzled them before where one of the boys attempts to stop Farah from dropping her green apple into the cider press. On their first read they had developed two ideas about why the boy tried to stop her: that he may have feared that the apple, being green, wasn’t ripe and would spoil the cider, and that he might have wanted the apple for himself because it was unique. Each idea was somewhat grounded in the text—the apple was green and it was unlike the others—but with a heightened awareness of the patterns Bunting had crafted and the link between Farah and the apple, they now wondered if perhaps the boy didn’t want the green apple—and by extension Farah—mixing with the others.

OneGreenApple1

Paying more attention to the details of the story and how the author used them helped these students consider something they never had before: that bigotry can exist among children even now. And like the students discovering the gender issues in The Paper Bag Princess earlier, they had much to say about that. And that brings us to another authentic reason for thinking about craft: It helps us reap one of the great gifts of reading—to expand and enrich our understanding of people and the world.

The Blue GhostIt also helps students become more aware of the intentionality of details, as two third graders of teacher and blogger Steve Peterson discovered when they returned to the beginning of a book they’d finished, The Blue Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer. As Steve recounts in his post “Re-reading to Discover Author Choices,” going back to the first chapter helped these readers see how the author had planted all sorts of clues they hadn’t noticed the first time around. This could, of course, help them analyze the text. But more importantly it will help them enter the next book they read with a greater awareness of how writers craft a text by arranging and using details that develop everything from character to theme. And, in the end, I believe that will make them more college and career ready than any multiple choice questions will.

So let’s not discount the importance of craft. Let’s just be sure that both we and students see how thinking about it really helps readers.

Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.