Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat

Skinning a Cat

By now, we all know the emphasis the Common Core has placed on writing about texts, and we’re also aware of the effects that has had on writing: The writing of poetry has vanished in far too many schools while the five-paragraph essay has become institutionalized as the way to respond to what the Common Core says is “the special place” argument holds in the Standards. And too often this has resulted in writing that’s functional and mechanical but not terribly meaningful or interesting to read.

Patrick Sullivan, the author of the NCTE piece “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom,” connects these results with “the kind of reductionism promoted by the Common Core Standards and the powerful, entrenched interest of the testing consortia,” And to push back on these forces, I want to offer some alternative ways for writing about reading. As in my first “Skinning the Writing Cat” post, each is grounded in a mentor text that students can study for structure and craft. And each promotes what Sullivan argues is needed to combat those trends and entrenched interests: “a more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing.”

Book Reviews: Real Writing for a Real Audience

stone-soup-coverIn the age of the Common Core, book reviews seem to have taken a back seat to analytic literary essays. This seems a shame to me—especially when students are invited to aspire to the kinds of student-written book reviews that regularly appear in the magazine Stone SoupIf you dip into their archives, you’ll find many examples of children writing about books with insight, voice and a deeply rhetorical, cognitive and creative understanding about writing, such as this review of Kevin Henkes‘s Olive’s Ocean written by 12-year-old Isabel:

“I’ve read so many books that are supposed to touch your heart and are just boring and predictable. This is not the case with Olive’s Ocean. You see, Kevin Henkes is a true writer, not some sappy poetic writer wannabe. He has this way of writing that’s plain but still very powerful—and I’m not talking about the Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse Kevin Henkes. . . [But] one thing that Kevin Henkes did take with him on the path from a world of five-year-old mice to this tear-jerking read is his fabulous understanding of a kid’s brain. Only Henkes can capture the feeling of the last day of a trip. Haven’t we all experienced that sensation of “this is the last time I’ll sleep on this pillow, the last time I’ll walk through this door, the last glass of orange juice here”?

Letters About Literature: Getting Personal

letters-about-literatureEvery year the Library of Congress sponsors a writing contest for grade 4-12 students called “Letters About Literature.” The contest asks students “to read a book, poem or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally.” To the best of my knowledge it’s the only writing contest for grade school students sponsored by the Federal government—the same government that sponsored the development of nationwide standards that ask readers to banish personal responses in order to stay “within the four corners of the text.” Here, though, students are applauded for personally connecting with a text, and the winning letters are filled with deep and often poignant insights and questions, such as this one from Charlie Boucher to Kathryn Erskine, the author of Mockingbirdabout a girl named Caitlin who has Aspergers.

Charlie begins his letter with an anecdote about passing a strange homeless man on the street who seemed so confused and off-kilter that his father told him to avoid people like that—which he did until he read Mockingbird:

I fell in love with that book. No other book has ever made me cry. But I did more than cry. I thought, I visualized, I feared. When I finished your book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that man I had seen. Did he have Aspergers? Rather than avoiding him, should my father and I have helped him? What about the countless other Caitlins in the world? I felt sympathy for them, but I felt something else. Later I realized that was guilt. . . . I was a hypocrite, ridiculing those who did not help others but not actually helping. The very core of my being, kindness, was in question. But I reread your book and I felt more a sense of understanding. You weren’t trying to frown upon those who bullied, but rather encourage people to be more open, to promote empathy. I did.

Writing to Think Before Writing to Convey Thinking

It’s easy to image that these two students and others you’ll find in the links are simply precocious or are privileged to come from homes full of books with parents who read to them. That, of course, is possible. But beyond their personal circumstances, one thing I’d bet on is those weren’t their first drafts.

Just as I do when thinking about a blog post, these writers probably started by simply exploring their ideas and thought without worrying about structure or even if what they were writing made sense. This kind of low-stakes or low-risk writing is incredibly valuable but often underusedthe-thing-about-luck—so much so that students may have no idea what it could look and sound like. Teacher modeling, of the sort shared at NCTE last month, can help, but so can an excerpt from Cynthia Kadohata‘s National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck.

The book tells the story of a Japanese-American girl named Summer whose family has seemingly run out of luck. First Summer contracts malaria from an infected mosquito in an airport, then her parents have to fly to Japan to care for a dying relative right before the harvest season starts. And with them gone, her aging grandparents must come out of retirement to get the wheat harvest in, taking Summer and her younger brother with them. Amid all these upheavals, Summer also must read and write a thematic essay on A Separate PeaceJohn Knowles’s classic about two boys’ tragic friendship during World War II.

Summer begins by trying to explain her experience of reading the book:

I thought A Separate Peace was a strange and kind of amazing book. It was very quiet, and then suddenly, it was not quiet at all. So then the parts that are not quiet make all the quiet parts seem like they are not quiet after all.

She then notes the odd structure of the book—how it starts at the end not the beginning with most of it taking place fifteen years earlier than the first and final chapters—before launching into a long text-to-self connection about how she and the main character Gene both live with fear.

Eventually, though, she gets to the book’s crucial scene where Gene shakes the branch of a tree his friend Finny has climbed, which causes Finny to fall:

Finny used to be a great athlete, but now his leg is broken so bad from the fall that he cannot be an athlete anymore. Later in the book Finny falls down a set of stairs. Then, he dies during surgery on his leg. The problem is, I do not really understand if Gene could have possibly shook the branch on purpose. I mean, who would do that to their best friend? Gene was jealous of how good an athlete Finny is, so I guess Gene, shakes the branch on purpose to hurt Finny?

Before Finny dies, Gene starts to dress like Finny. Finny trains Gene to be an athlete like Finny used to be. Gene becomes like Finny because Finny cannot be himself anymore. This is insane behavior in my opinion. Their relationship is so intense that it is insane.

Summer takes a break here to ponder what she’s written. Then she grabs her pencil and starts writing again to capture the thought all this writing has spawned:

People are very complicated, and I do not think even a really smart psychiatrist can truly figure out what is in your brain and what is in your heart or stomach. You might not even realize it, but maybe you would shake a branch your best friend is on, although I personally do not think I would ever do that. My brain and heart might be mixed up and tangled, and inside of me there are both good and bad things. The lesson of A Separate Peace is that it might take fifteen years to untangle all those things inside of me.

To me, this is a wonderful example of how a writer doesn’t craft a thesis as much as arrive at one through a process of thinking. Granted, an experienced, skilled writer actually wrote this, but I can’t begin to count the times I haven’t discovered what I’ve wanted to say until I reached the end. So if we truly want students to write meaningfully about reading and develop that “more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing,” let’s be sure to give them a vision of what both the process and the product could look like by using great mentor texts.





10 thoughts on “Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat

  1. Vicki,
    I loved learning about the Letters about Literature contest. I know some teachers and students who may be interested. And this “… I can’t begin to count the times I haven’t discovered what I’ve wanted to say until I reached the end.” So very true!

    Titles are always the last thing for my blog posts because I’ve often ended up in a very different place than what I was once thinking! Mentor texts – for students and adults – are all around us. We need to seek them out! Thanks for giving me more sources as we continue this writing journey!

    • Funny that you used the word ‘seek,’ Fran. That was my one little word this year and it’s served me so well, I’m thinking of keeping it for another year. And FYI, I got a lovely email from Cynthia Kadohata who I went to grad school with and she says the same thing is true for her. We often don’t know the full scope of our thinking until we carve out time to just explore. Happy Holidays!

  2. Hello Vicki,

    I am loving all the talk about writing to think (before writing to convey thinking) because that’s how I operate, and always thought it was just another sign that I wasn’t a skilled writer. Now I know it’s ok.

    Also, you are spot on about the emphasis of the 5-paragraph-essay as a result of the adoption of the Common Core standards. I’m seeing that in my own school and it is insane, and very, very sad.

    I feel very defeated, and this post helps, as do all of yours. Thank you.

    • So very sorry you’re feeling down, Allison. Just know that you’re not alone. In fact, I turned to this post, which I had an old rough draft of after struggling with something deeper and darker, and it helped me push back on the gloom and doom I’ve been feeling since election day. And in case you need more ammunition for pushing back on five paragraph essays, here’s another wonderful piece that talks about what kids miss as thinkers when we give them a fill-in-the-blank structure:

  3. Vicki,
    I am so glad you are going into the world of writing. This idea that a “writer doesn’t craft a thesis as much as arrive at one through a process of thinking” is a scary idea for those accustomed to the five-paragraph thesis-driven essay. Having mentor texts like those in the Letters About Literature site help ease the fear of unknown. Phrases like “I think.. ” and “now I realize…” show writers how thinking on the page can look.

    I love this idea of taking a book and using it as a launching point for writing about the reader’s journey, not just in the book, but in their understanding of the world. I can’t imagine a better way to meet common core standards than to be able to write well about books you love.

    • I first started thinking about essays that address the reader’s journey after reading Tobias Wolff’s wonderful introduction to Raymond Carver’s collection “Cathedral” (which Heather Lattimer shares at the opening of her chapter on literary essays in “Thinking Through Genre”). It seems like such a replicable & emulate-able structure, just as the Letters about Literature are. And, yes, I’ve been enjoying focusing on writing in some of my schools–in fact, after I wrote this post, the ideas of writing a “Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Writing” book popped into my head. I definitely need some down time before I’d try to tackle that, but . . . who knows what the year might bring!

      • Oh my, yes! Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Writing sounds like a natural outgrowth. That kind of thoughtful journey would allow literature to take root. I fear we are becoming such an if-then culture rather than a thought generating one. Writing about literature might help us get on a more even keel.

  4. I’ve recently begun to sort of “ban” the term “reading response” from my vocabulary, actually correcting people when they say it. A response is something that is done after something, but writing about reading is part of an important process, mostly during reading. It also subtly gives the feeling that it’s another hoop that adults are making kids jump through.

    • Not surprising that you’ve been thinking about this, Tom! In my new book, I make a distinction between a response and a reaction because I, too, feel like responses tend to be far too teacher-driven and task-like. Reactions, however, open the door to kids writing in authentic ways that can be emotional, intellectual AND personal, which in my mind is not the dirty word the CCSS tends to make it. Or as Annie Dillard puts it in another favorite quote: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?”

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