From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings


A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:


While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:


Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.



Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance


Last week I shared how a group of third and fourth grade teachers deepened their students’ understanding of realistic fiction by introducing the concept of character flaws. Framing instruction around this vision definitely helped make the students’ stories more powerful. But once they began to develop ideas in which characters were complicit in the problems they faced and had to change to solve them, there was still lots of teaching to do. And we determined that teaching not just by returning to the unit plan but by using the critical practice of looking at student work.

looking-at-student-workTeachers, of course, look at student work all the time, often on their own, as they check assignments or pre- and post assessments for the purpose of evaluating or seeing if the students got something or not (which, if they haven’t, usually means the next step is reteaching). Writing in Educational Leadershipauthors Angie Deuel, Tamara Nelson, David Slavit and Anne Kennedy call this “the proving approach” to looking at student work, which is guided by the question, Did the students get it or not? And that’s different, they write, from what they call “the improving approach,” which teachers should ideally do collaboratively in order to explore a different question: What are students thinking?

According to the authors, using an improving approach to looking at work supports

“more generative conversations about student work. Teachers’ discussions yielded different questions that teachers wrestled with; those questions led to additional questions and sometimes to spirited debates about what teaching and learning should look like. Teachers sharpened their thinking about instruction, learning styles, content, formative assessment, the role of the teacher, and student engagement.”

This approach to looking at student work was precisely what led the teachers I worked with to rethink the way students were planning their stories. And studying the students’ work, we also realized that we needed to think deeper about what we teaching them not just about planning but drafting and revising.

To see what I mean, take a look at both this fourth grade student’s story mountain along with his initial draft and consider what the student reveals about his understanding of both planning and writing stories—that is, what do you think is going on in his head? story-mountain-sample-2


In a sense this student did exactly what he’d been asked to do: He filled in all the story mountain boxes and used that to create a first draft. He also revealed an understanding of the concept of a climax and, perhaps, that characters need to change in order to solve their problems. But if you looked carefully at the first three event boxes, you may have noticed that he seems to have broken down one event into three, which suggests he has a fuzzy idea of what a story event is and how stories tend to complicate things before they resolve them. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to have a vision of the difference between planning and drafting, as he seemed to rewrite what he wrote in the boxes for his draft with only a few added details.

ruby-the-copycat-coverRecognizing these misconceptions, we then had to think about how to address them, which is one of the challenges of an improving approach. That’s because, as the Educational Leadership authors write, “taking an improving stance often unearths the formidable complexities of teaching and learning that stay hidden when the focus is on making cutoff scores.” We considered, for instance, offering a lesson on dialogue or leads, but while those would provide students with a strategy for drafting, it might not give them that deeper understanding of the difference between planning and drafting and of summaries and scenes. So we returned to one of our mentor texts and designed a lesson, which I then taught, that explicitly addressed those misconceptions while also providing a vision of craft.

To implement the lesson, I first created a chart that showed what Ruby the Copycat author Peggy Rothman might have put int the Event #1 box if she’d filled out a story mountain worksheet:


Then once the students had gathered on the rug, I introduced the chart then read the following from Rothman’s book, asking them to consider this question (which I invite you to think about, too): How are these pages different from what’s in the box?  ruby-the-copycat-1



Of course, kids being kids, the first thing they noticed was the book said Ruby sat behind Angela, not next to her as I’d written. But as you’ll see below, they went on to notice much more, beginning with the fact that there were more descriptive words.


Because I didn’t want them to arbitrarily add more descriptive words to their pieces for the simple sake of being more descriptive, I asked if they could give me an example, which brought out the lines about Ruby tiptoeing and looking at Angela’s bow. Building on that, I then asked if they thought those details did more than just describe what Ruby was doing, and the students all said yes. Those details gave them clues about Ruby—that she might be shy or want to ‘lay low’ and that she admired Angela’s bow and might want to copy it.

imageIn this way the students were grasping another concept I wrote about in an earlier post on show, don’t tell: that writers actually show and tell, conveying information through the details they choose. And the students thought the dialogue was doing this as well. It gave the reader a hint about Ruby’s problem which, to the delight of the observing teachers, one of the students named as foreshadowing.

Studying the beginning of a mentor text this way definitely gave the students a deeper vision of a scene versus a summary and of planning versus drafting. But having a vision doesn’t automatically mean being able to replicate it on your own. For that learners, be they children or adults, need additional practice, and I’ll share how we offered that in another post. For now, though, try to keep that distinction in mind: Are you proving or improving when you look at student work?

Keeping Creativity Alive in the Classroom: A Grab Bag of Resources & Ideas

Grab bagAs we head into June, much of my time seems devoted to tying up loose ends and reflecting back on the year. And with loose ends and reflection in my mind, I’d like to share four resources I discovered over the school year that I couldn’t seem to find a home for in another post.

The first is Cecil, the Pet Glaciera delightfully quirky picture book written by Matthea Harvey and illustrated by Giselle Potter, that someone recommended to me a while ago. It sat on my bookshelf for quite some time before I decided to try it out as a read aloud in a third grade class this spring. And it turned out to be a wonderful book for engaging students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Do.

Cecil the Pet GlacierThe book is about a girl named Ruby who, unlike her unique but self-absorbed parents (mom makes tiaras and dad creates topiaries), wants only to be normal. The class’s teacher wasn’t sure that her students would know what a tiara or a topiary was, let alone a glacier, and she also wondered if they’d get a book about a child who was embarrassed by her parents. She was game, though, to try it out and so we decided not to front-load any vocabulary but see how much the kids could figure out. This meant that many at first thought that the strange white object on the cover might be a package containing a pet. And while some thought that on the page below Ruby hoped that no one from school would see her because she was playing with dolls, others wondered if it was because she was didn’t want anyone seeing her parents, who had been shown on the page before dancing the tango through the topiaries in tiaras.

Cecil Illustration

We continued reading with those questions about Ruby’s motives and her parents in mind, with the students continually revising their ideas as they encountered new details. And that allowed the students to not only ‘get’ what a glacier was but what they thought Matthea Harvey was trying to show them about parents, relationships, growing up and what it means to be different and normal.

The second resource is connected to my love affair with visuals that I wrote about here and here: a wonderful website called The Creativity Core, where high school teacher Daniel Weinstein shares some of the visual mind maps his students have created in both his class and others. Many of these can be used as great mentor texts for note-taking, which as this student’s mind map about mind mapping says can be “a dull and boring process that often leaves students drooling on their books.”

Mind Mapping Mind Map

Instead, mind maps invite students not just to copy but to think about where and how they’re writing down what in ways that can help them own and retain the content they’re learning more deeply. Here, for instance, is an example of a student’s psychology class notes where, in addition to capturing the main ideas of different schools of thought, she demonstrates true understanding of the content by the way she’s posed the question at the top of the page “Why did the woman kill the man?”, then answered it by applying the different perspectives, such as “The id took over,” which you’ll see at the bottom of her notes for the Psychoanalytic perspective.

Pyschology Mind Mpa

And here’s a mind map one of Daniel Weinstein’s student made that captures the writing advice Weinstein gave the class in a way that I think shows how much it’s valued. (Makes me wonder what students and teachers might include in a mind map of things they heard me say!)

Writing Advice Mind Map

The power of creativity is also on display in the third resource I’d like to share: the new ebook from my friends at the Opal School in Portland, Creating Possible Worlds: The Teacher’s Role in Nurturing a Community Where Imagination ThrivesThe book documents a year-long study of seeds that was facilitated by preschool teachers Lauren Adams and Caroline Wolfe. The project was framed around a series of questions that the teachers explored as the children explored seeds. And while these questions evolved as the project did, all were connected to the teachers initial inquiry questions:

“What is our image of children and how do we, as teacher-researchers deepen our understanding of our values through reflecting on our daily practice and decision-making in the classoom?

What are the elements of a classroom culture that supports playful inquiry and sustained curiosity? And what is the teacher’s role in this?

What habits of heart and mind are being practiced and embodied by both the children and the adults through this experience?”

Throughout the book the teachers share their thoughts about these questions—and what new questions these thoughts raised—while also sharing their children’s thinking about seeds. Here, for instance, are two children exchanging some of their ideas and questions:

Creating Possible Worlds Page

I love the one child’s questions—”What’s inside? A tree is inside?”—and the way the other makes sense of the world by using figurative language—”This one is like the inside of a tulip” and “It’s where the baby plant comes out. It’s like the belly button of a bean.” But it reminded me of a study Sir Ken Robinson shared in his Ted Talk “Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?” The study tested young people’s ability to think in divergent or non-linear ways, which is key for creativity. Ninety-eight percent of the age three-to-five children who were tested could. Yet those numbers dropped precipitously the older students were. Only 32% of the age eight to ten tested children could, and of the test subjects who were between the ages of 13 and 15, only 10% were able to think in non-linear ways. Sir Ken attributes the drop in numbers to an educational system that’s too often driven by single right answers. But anyone who’s concerned with these numbers might want to take a look at what Opal’s teachers discovered as they pursued their questions.

Battle Bunny CoverFinally, while I was at NCTE I snagged a copy of Battle Bunnya new book by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, with pictures by Matthew Myers. The book looks like a tattered Golden Book, with sweet illustrations and an uplifting message, that has been defaced and rewritten by the book’s owner Alex, who’s turned the original book’s main character Birthday Bunny into a chainsaw slinging rabbit.

Like all of Jon Scieszka’s and Mac Barnett’s book, Battle Bunny is hysterical, with all sorts of fun details to be found in the illustrations and the margins:

Battle Bunny Page

But here’s what I’d absolutely love to do: use the book as a mentor writing text and let students rewrite a real Golden Book with a partner or a small group to brainstorm the possibilities. Not only would that be enormously fun, but the critical thinking and problem solving opportunities would be huge. And I can’t help thinking that students would also learn quite a lot along the way about things like alliteration, word choice and the power of details in ways that could be lasting.

Of course, this means buying a dozen or more Golden Books and dealing with the ethical question of letting students go at them. But I have to imagine there’s a teacher out there who sees the same potential for learning in this that I do. If so . . . let me know!

Golden Books Belong To Page

Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE


My last post shared some words and ideas from two of the sessions I attended at this year’s NCTE convention, both of which powerfully demonstrated the deep and insightful work students can do if they’re given enough space and time. Those students also benefited from teachers who trusted them enough to let go, which isn’t always easy. We can fear, for instance, that if we let go we’ll lose control of the room. We can fear that students won’t learn what they need to, which will reflect on us badly. Or we can fear that if we veer away from our lesson plans or scripts, students may start to ask us questions we don’t have the answers for, which will reveal perhaps our other deepest fear—that we don’t always know enough.

Dropping the MaskThose fears and what can happen when we move beyond them were explored in a session called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” that I also wanted to share because the ideas were simply too inspiring not to spread around. Chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by a dynamite trio all connected to the Learning Through Teaching program in New Hampshire, Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey and Terry Moher, the session kicked off with a quote from yours truly and another from Tom Newkirk who, in an article called “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” suggests that

“‘opening up’ the discourse to allow for the expression of confusion and difficulty . . . allows us all, teachers and students, to drop the masks that can inhibit learning. We can all act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are. We can reveal ourselves as learners, not always the most graceful of positions.”

To help us feel the power of those words, Louise invited us to look at some of the iconic photographs she’s been sharing with students, such as the one below, and to consider the same three questions that she asks students to ponder: What does it say? What does it mean? and What does it matter?


Those simple questions compelled us to look closely, ‘reading’ the details of the picture as closely as we want students to read the details of a text, and ‘suspending conclusions’, as John Dewey advises in order to share the different things we noticed and consider what they might mean.

Then Tomasen put us all in that ‘not always graceful position’ of learners by asking us to choose one of the images of faces she’d placed on each table and add to the drawing, which led many in the audience to say that the didn’t know how to draw. But draw we did, with most of adding a body and clothing to the head that seemed in keeping with the kind of person we imagined that face to be.

Vicki at NCTE

Next she shared some images from a blog post called “Collaborating with a 4-year Old,” which was written by an illustrator whose daughter commandeered her new sketchbook, much to the mother’s chagrin, to ‘finish’ the drawings she’d started:

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

After laughing at the mother’s story and marveling at the drawings, Tomasen asked us to turn our own drawing over, where we found the same disembodied face, and to try to add to it again. With no more than that we all started to draw, this time capturing who we thought the person was in much more creative ways than before as we instinctively moved from the literal to the figurative. And we picked up our pens with none of the hesitation or protest we voiced before, drawing the way the mother described her daughter doing: “insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done.”

This was possible, I believe, because we used the blog post drawings as a mentor text—a text that opened up what had been until then unimagined possibilities of how we could convey our thinking. Terry then took this one step further when she shared what happened when she used a visual mentor texts to a room of high school students who were reading The Scarlet Letter, a text that many students I know have considered to be the bane of their existence.

Having snagged a used class set of the book, Terry invited her students to mark up the text in any way they wanted, and rather than holding on to any of the practices we use to hold students accountable for reading—entrance slips, chapter summaries, pop quizzes—she gave them the option to not read sections provided they explained why in writing.

Moby-Dick in Pictures CoverAll by themselves, these choices helped her students read more than they otherwise might have, but things got even more interesting when she brought in what would be their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish, which I bought as soon as I got home. As Kish explains in the book’s forward, Moby-Dick had fascinated him since he first saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and also being obsessed with images, he decided to create an image for a quote from each and every page of the book. And as you can see from the images below, he used a wide range of materials and techniques to capture what he describes in his forward as his desire and goal: “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (p. 48)

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” (p. 48)
From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

“For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing – be the end what it may.” (p. 544) From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

With this text as a mentor, Terry asked her students to choose one quote from each chapter of the book and create an image for it. And just as happened with us in the room completing the drawings of those heads, the students images started out quite literal—think cut out pictures of Demi Moore in a white puritan cap—before they became more figurative. What was fascinating, though, was that, as some students ventured beyond the literal, the whole class decided that their pictures should attempt to capture something deeper about the characters’ psyche. And that class-wide decision yielded images like these, which I think are simply amazing:

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

Terry, herself, was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process. And that made me think that something Tom Romano had said in his poetry session—”No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”—applies to teachers and students as well: If there’s no surprise for the teachers, there can be no surprise for the students. Of course that means that we need to be willing to live with uncertainty—or as Cynthia Merrill, another amazing educator from New Hampshire, said in another session, “We need to be sure enough to be unsure.”

To do that, I think, we have to trust not just our students but ourselves and hold on to the belief that it may, in fact, be that willingness to be unsure that makes us, not only learners, but professionals—unless, of course, it’s something in the water in New Hampshire.

Edublog Finalist LogoP.S. Click through to vote for To Make a Prairie, a finalist for this year’s Edublog Award. Voting ends on December 18, 2013. THANKS!

Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.

Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.

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.