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

 

 

 

The Fourth Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

ChalkboardWhile the first day of school is still a week away for schools in my neck of the woods, I know many of you are already back in classrooms with a new bunch of learners — or if you’ve looped up, with familiar faces that have grown over the summer. And as I’ve done for the last four years (yikes!), I’d like to celebrate the start of a new school year, by once again sharing some of the inspiring and probing thoughts that educators have left on this blog over the last twelve months.

As happens each year, it was a challenge to choose a half-dozen comments from those left by members of what I’m convinced is one of the most thoughtful blog readerships out there. And as has also happened before, I think there’s a pattern that runs through many of the comments this year that reflects larger concerns in the field – this year, a renewed attention to process over product and to helping children develop what Mark Condon calls, in his must-read post, each student’s ‘UNcommon core’:

“An UNcommon, TRUE core for every child, is their own intrinsic engine that drives them to learn. If we teachers don’t help our youngsters to develop personal tastes and personal interests and personal goals and a reservoir of personally enriching experiences, then they will be ill equipped to handle the dizzying choices life offers them.”

Here, you’ll see that I’ve set each reader’s comments next to an image that links back to the post they were responding to (and if you click through to the post, you can read other comments by scrolling down to the bottom). And for those readers who also blog, I’ve embedded a link to their blogs in their name, which I urge you to click on as well for more wonderful food for thought. And now, without any more introduction, here are some words that reaffirm my belief in thinking teachers:

Shitty First Drafts“This discussion about process versus product is huge. I love your point about the fear of reducing the art of writing into a flash draft. Like you, my process is slow and thoughtful. I do obsess word by word. On one hand, I can understand the need for assisting our students in getter over the fear of writing by offering them the opportunity to flash draft, but on the other, I am dually concerned about the message we may be sending, and I worry that we are not spending enough time developing the craft of writing.”  Laurie Pandorf

If You Had to Teach Something“There are so many things worth knowing and ways of knowing that cannot be verbalized (and perhaps should not be reduced to words)…a painting, a jazz riff, an equation, an “elegant” line of computer code. But we don’t allow much for this type of knowing. And when we do, we feel the need to verbalize/analyze rather than “know” through the language of color, form, line, rhythm, number or whatever language the creator has used. . . Naturally, the written and verbal word are paramount — that’s our common way of communicating (and the way we expect kids to learn). But there are other ways and levels of understanding perhaps more natural especially for our youngest learners – I’d argue that’s true for all learners but we squelch it earlier and earlier . . . To focus on the child — to focus on multiple ways for students to make meaning and to make their understandings visible would be such a welcome change of pace.” Lisa

Hemingway on Writing“Such a timely post as we’ve had this discussion lately that includes, “How many final published pieces of writing should a student have?” I’m leaning towards the answer from the ‘cheap seats’ – ‘It depends!’ I think there is a definite need for balance when we think of confident, competent writers. Writers themselves need to be aware of their metacognition and how writing plays out for them. Environment? Quiet or Noisy? Handwrite or Keyboard? Think or Draft? But more importantly are the issues about WHAT to do when stuck . . . keep writing, go for a walk, try a different approach. Writing is so complicated. Good writing even more so. It really is not as simple as just putting words on paper!” Fran McVeigh

MIND THE GAP“’…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 ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text.’ I’m trying to remember a time when I either asked a student to engage in an ongoing conversation or was asked to participate in one. Yikes! I love the idea of being part of a grand, ongoing conversation! That really knocks me, as teacher, off center stage and suggests a community of thinkers. Yikes! I am reminded of a student essay I read recently that compares the onset and growth of ideas to drops of water coming together, from creek to stream to ocean, to make something more powerful than their individual selves. A grand conversation! Delicious!” Faynessa Armand

calvin-hobbesLow-stakes writing has such high value in our classrooms, and in reading your piece, I couldn’t help thinking of equating this type of writing to the idea we talk about in reading of “imaginative rehearsals.” When we read material that explores areas of emotion or psychology that we have not fully explored in our lives, it better prepares us for when we have to deal with those events. Writing in low-stakes forms, allows us to explore similar things; we get to practice new ideas in a space that is non-threatening. Essentially, we get to play with thoughts, ideas, and words that may or may not become part of our thinking later on, when it may matter much more. Patrick Higgins

Don't Try to Think“Your discussion of writing as an unfolding event is resonant. Writers need to trust the process, the struggles, the to-ing, fro-ing, ebbs and flows which lead to breakdowns and breakthroughs. Sometimes the biggest challenges produce the most rewarding products (as I am discovering with my PhD). . .  I think the struggle is what results in good writing and robust ideas. Deb (a.k.a. The Edu Flaneuse)

Of course now that I (Vicki) have typed this up, I see another pattern: I seem to have unconsciously chosen quotes that I, as a writer who’s had her fair share of breakdowns and breakthroughs over the last year, need to hold on to and remember. I’ll share more about that journey in an upcoming post, but for now here’s hoping that whether you’ve already started or are still gearing up, the new school year will be filled with lots of joyful learning, fascinating questions, delicious thinking and regular celebrations of all of our UNcommon cores!

First Day of School

 

News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

Hemingway on Writing

I shared this image and quote from Hemingway at a session I chaired at NCTE in November, and between now and then I’ve done a lot of blood-letting as I’ve plugged away at my book. I’ve also experienced jolts of joy, because as Neil Gaiman writes, “The process of writing can be magical.” From nothing but words you can create whole worlds that can move and affect other people. I also learned a thing or two about myself as a writer that have raised some questions about how we teach writing in classrooms, which I’m feeling an itch to share, along with a handful of great writing quotes that could use a good home.

The big thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is to trust my process. I’m not a fast writer in any way. In fact, the whole idea of writing a flash draft is about as unappealing to me as speed dating or dining at Burger King. That’s not to say that I never do it. I can, if I absolutely have to. And I do try to keep my pen or keyboard fingers moving if I’m writing something exploratory, which I do if I’m stuck or want to play around with an idea or image in my notebook or a new document. But that’s writing for me, not writing for a reader. The minute I’m intentionally writing for a reader (versus an assessment or test scorer), I slow down in order to, as Rachel Carson says, “be still and listen to what [my] subject has to tell [me].” And I’m aware that flies right in the face of both many writers’ advice and current classroom trends.

Shitty First DraftsMany writers, for instance, say it’s important to just get a draft down on paper because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird “you need to start  somewhere,” and giving yourself permission to write what she calls a”shitty first draft,” can help. Likewise, John Steinbeck advised would-be writers to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”

Advice like this is part of what drives the flash draft trend in schools, but there’s another writing camp of thought that doesn’t get as much press, which does things differently. Here, for instance, is Annie Dillard making a case for writing carefully and slowly right from the start:

“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a root, may begin a strand of metaphor or even out of which much, or all, will develop.”

This camp believes in letting the words guide you, which for writer Jayne Anne Phillips means that she writes “line by line, by the sound and the weight and the music of the words,” without too much revision.

Of course, for better or worse, I revise a lot, too (which is why this book is taking so long). But while much of my revising has to do with clarifying my focus and meaning, which inevitably involves moving parts around, I also follow Tom Romano‘s advice for revision from his fabulous essay “How to Write”:

 “Read aloud. Feel the words in your mouth. Listen. Your sense of how language should sound is a great ally. You’ll hear when words make music; you’ll hear when they’re discordant. Make adjustments if you need to . . . honing language, tinkering and tuning.”

I just do that in my first draft, too.

So why do we teach students that writers always write their first drafts quickly when actually that’s not true? It may have to do with the fact that some students can feel inhibited or downright scared at the sight of a blank page or screen, and in that they’re not alone. Writer Margaret Atwood, for instance, has said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough?” And writing a flash or a shitty first draft can be a way of tricking our minds into leaving those fears behind. It’s also easier to teach kids to write flash drafts than it is to invite, if not teach, them to love language. But as often happens when we take an easy route, we run the risk of simplifying something complex—and, in the case of writing, really hard.

Don't Try to ThinkI also suspect we ask students to write flash drafts as a way of preparing them for on-demand assessments, though the two are different. When it comes to high-stakes performing, for instance, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” writes that “If you are well-practiced, just let the learning you have done unfold under the force of unconscious rather than conscious thinking.” That is, you’re not supposed to think. But what if all that you’re well-practiced in is writing on-demand? What learning is unfolding then?

I’m not suggesting that everyone follow my process, only that process is as important as products—though in our current product-driven age, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s during the process, after all, that we get to practice and try out things as writers, whether that’s leads, structure, craft moves or even a process itself. We could, for instance, give students more than one strategy for getting words down on the page and then invite them to consider which worked best for for them, using this advice from Tom Romano as a guide.”Whatever helps you come to language, tap, exploit, ride. Whatever hinders you coming to language, avoid, shun, spurn.”

Of course, this means we’d need to value engaging with language as much as getting a job done. But I believe there are students out there who might actually find more joy in the blood-letting by listening to and following their words. And by finding more joy in the process, they’d learn more, which means that they’d come to those high-stakes moments with more that could unconsciously unfold.

blood-letting