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.

process-product

 

 

 

Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing

MIND THE GAP

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it’s] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.

Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.


As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.