What Maggie Says: Informational Text Writing


At a professional development I was co-facilitating the other day with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, we were very fortunate to have Maggie Roberts (from Teachers College) skype into our session to chat with us about the idea of informational writing. This has been one of the topics that we have been exploring with this group of teachers for much of the school year, and Roberts thoughtful analysis and sharing of strategies and conceptual ideas around the shifts to more informational writing was very helpful.

What I found most useful were Maggie’s overview of the qualities of informational writing:

  • Focus on the topic – narrowing the focus of the writer from general to specific;
  • Organize with a logical structure, so that the pieces fit and work together;
  • Group ideas in a meaningful way that is clear and compelling to the reader;
  • Use transition language — from paragraph to paragraph, from idea to idea, etc.;
  • Tap into specific terminology and vocabulary of the subject, and ensure the reader understands;
  • Elaborate with detail;
  • Structure the writing — flow from start to middle to finish.

I think we all found these ideas handy to keep in mind when our students are working on informational text, and we even talked a bit about how students have an internalized understanding of fiction (because it is a central part of their reading and listening experience) but not so much with non-fiction, and that makes moving from reader to writer all the more difficult. It requires much scaffolding and mentoring.

I also liked how Maggie explained three main ways to think of research:

  • Lived experiences (personal)
  • Text-based reading (traditional research, online and offline)
  • Investigation of sources (interviews, experts,etc.)

This validates the students’ view of the world even as it encourages an unfolding of experience to how others see a topic. That was a nice way to frame the idea of research from our notion of “open the book, take notes” to “what do you know, and where can you go to find out more.)

Thanks, Maggie!

Peace (in the visit),


Book Review: Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction

I’ve long been intrigued by flash fiction — shorter pieces of writing that utilize inference and character to drive home an idea or a story in a short amount of time and brevity of words. Mostly, though, I have thought about it terms of fiction. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore, is a perfect introduction to the approaches that a writer might take when considering flash non-fiction — writing about the real but in a creative vein.

The book is a series of chapters in which published authors talk about the craft of flash non-fiction, and its place in the field of writing and reading. Topics range from image and detail, to finding your voice, to the use of language, to the concept of discovering a structure for your narrative. Each chapter has a short introduction, followed by not only a demonstrative piece of flash non-fiction but also some ways that the reader might “try out” some strategies.

It’s this part that intrigues me as a teacher, and a writer, and I appreciated those three components — overview, sample, suggestions — coming together in this collection. This field guide opened my eyes to some interesting possibilities for writing non-fiction in shorter bursts, but still making those pieces meaningful, insightful and worth reading. And I would be not be truthful if I am not making connections in my mind from this collection to the Common Core’s push towards more non-fiction reading and writing, in the content areas. In some ways, flash fiction is a natural fit for teaching about non-fiction writing. Students would not get overwhelmed by the length of the assignments, and yet, they would be learning about how to notice the world, use critical thinking and convey important messages about their topics.

I have explored this idea of shortened forms of writing before and continue to be intrigued by the possibilities.

Peace (in the small but powerful writing moments),

Book Review and Common Core Text: Black Ships Before Troy

One would be hard-pressed to argue against the powerful story of The Illiad, but I am having a difficult time thinking through my thoughts about Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff. The trouble is not the story, but the text. I picked up this retelling of The Illiad because our state of Massachusetts Department of Education has listed it as a model reading text for sixth graders, and Black Ships Before Troy is the focus of one of the state’s exemplary Model Curriculum Lesson Units as part of our Common Core Initiative. (I am still trying to get my hands on the unit itself. We are not a Race to the Top school, and only Race to the Top schools have access to all the model units. I have no idea why.)

Which means the state would really like all sixth graders to read this book. I suppose some state folks might argue differently about my view on that — that this book is merely one example, and all that, but who’s kidding who? They don’t spent a year or more working on a model unit just for the fun of it.

Me? I had trouble getting through the book. Again, it’s not the story (although how much killing and battle can one read about before getting glazed eyes). It is the writing in this book. At least, that’s my humble opinion. Sutcliff’s text would go right over the heads of most of my sixth graders, and I can tell you quite honestly that I would probably lose them in the first chapter. With numerous characters and countless Gods, and with the story shifting between the heroes of Greece and the heroes of Troy, I could barely keep track of who is who, and I know the story already pretty well.

No doubt, the inclusion of this text is a sign of the “complex texts” element of the Common Core, and the drawing of connections between literacy and Social Studies. I get it. But I wonder if the folks who worked on this unit, and the folks at the Department of Education, thought deeply enough about something more than reading when choosing books (although, a quick look at the Lexile site shows that Black Ships, with a level of 1300, is clearly a high school text Or am I reading that wrong?).  If we lose our students in a book early, it is painfully difficult to get them back. I know this from experience.

And it’s not just Black Ships Before Troy, either.

I notice that Tuck Everlasting, which is a beautifully-written novel with some huge themes, has been set up as a text for fourth grade. Fourth grade? I teach this book in sixth grade, and there are many students who struggle with the issues raised in the novel, as well as the way that Natalie Babbitt uses her poetic skills to tell her story and set the scene. It’s a perfect text for 12 year olds. But 9 year olds? I don’t think so. (although Lexile does think so, as its 770 designation puts it in the fourth grade category).

There’s an issue of the Common Core. And there’s the issue of Common Sense. In this case, the two ideas are not meshing. And that is frustrating to me, as the teacher who wants to instill a love of reading and books in my students.

Peace (in the text),




When Trademarked Products Enter the Testing Environment

Product Placements and Testing

I wrote this comic after reading a piece at the Washington Post about the creeping (creepy) influence of trademarked products into standardized testing. The article notes that Pearson does not appear to have gotten paid for including the names and trademarks of commercial products, and its inquiry found that the products were references in the original texts used for the assessment .. yet how can we NOT wonder about the influence? We have to. Testing situations have to be above reproach when it comes to our kids.

Peace (in product-free assessments),


NCTE: Avoid Machine-Graded Writing Assessments

Thank you, NCTE, for articulating a strong position on using computers to assess student writing in standardized testing. The National Council of Teachers of English published a position statement this past week that strongly denounces the shift towards having computers and software programs assess student writing, particularly in relation to the coming Common Core assessments that so many of our states are now part of.

The position paper notes:

… we can cost-effectively assess writing without relying on flawed machine-scoring methods. By doing so, we can simultaneously deepen student and educator learning while promoting grass-roots innovation at the classroom level. For a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction. Our students and their families deserve it, the research base supports it, and literacy educators and administrators will welcome it.” – from NCTE

The position paper also cites the many reasons why computers often fail in these machine-scored scenarios, noting:

  • Computers are unable to recognize or judge those elements that we most associate with good writing
  • Computers are programmed to score papers written to very specific prompts, reducing the incentive for teachers to develop innovative and creative occasions for writing, even for assessment
  • Computer scoring favors the most objective, “surface” features of writing (grammar, spelling, punctuation)
  • Computer scoring systems can be “gamed” because they are poor at working with human language, further weakening the validity of their assessments
  • Computer scoring discriminates against students who are less familiar with using technology to write or complete tests

And last, but not least, and perhaps most important of all:

Computer scoring removes the purpose from written communication — to create human interactions through a complex, socially consequential system of meaning making — and sends a message to students that writing is not worth their time because reading it is not worth the time of the people teaching and assessing them.” — NCTE

The paper then goes on to cite alternative ways to assess student writing, including the well-researched method of portfolios. Whether PARCC and Smarter Balance folks are listening, or care to listen, is a whole other matter. If they need any help, the writers of the position paper helpfully provide a long list of annotated articles on the topic.

Peace (without the machine),

PS — Thanks to Troy Hicks for sharing the link via Twitter. Troy is one of the authors of the position paper.



Comic: The Teacher of Reading is All of Us

I grabbed this from  blogger Andrew Wales, who does a wonderful job with creating graphic stories and panels that captures his views  of the world (mostly art, but also, teaching). This one is about reading, and comes from his notes after reading a book about the teaching of reading. It connects nicely with Common Core’s push that everyone is a teacher of literacy.


Peace (in reading),

TFK: The Future of Testing

tfk testing
How timely is this? The cover story to Time for Kids magazine this week is all about the shifts coming around Common Core testing (either PARCC or Smarter Balance.) We have our own Massachusetts state reading assessments next week (with Math in May). So, testing is on our minds, as much as I would not like it to be. I’ve talked to my students about the changes in our state’s expectations (ie, Common Core) and the changes that are coming down the pike with testing. The TFK cover story, however, provided a solid overview of what they can expect to see happening in the next two to three years.

The article sparked some great discussions and also generated some pertinent questions, such as:

  • Will students HAVE to use the computer or will they have a choice to use paper?
  • What if a school doesn’t have enough technology? How will students take the test?
  • How long will this test take to do?
  • What if you don’t have good typing skills?
  • How will the test be introduced? (ie, Will there be a practice year?)
  • Could someone cheat by using the computer to find information online?
  • For the tests that are “computer adaptive,” does that mean that students who answer incorrectly will have more questions to answer than those who answer correctly? (Computer adaptive tests move the student forward in different directions, depending on the previous answer).
  • Why is there more writing?
  • My mom/dad says this new test is coming because too many teachers are teaching to the (current test). Is that true?

I didn’t have the answers to all these queries, because so much of what is going to happen remains unclear and muddled.

As for that last question (which was asked by three different students in three different classrooms, by the way), I tried to explain that while that may be happening in some classrooms in some schools, and it may be a worthy complaint, I did not feel that we were doing that. However, I acknowledged that the kinds of teaching we are doing now, and the levels and kinds of expectations that we have for students now, has changed over the past three years (more evidence-based writing; more research activities; more non-fiction, argumentative, expository pieces) due to the shifts.

And then we started to talk about strategies for next week’s state reading test. So maybe the complaint about time spent teaching to the test is valid, after all. Sigh.

Peace (in the testing),


Considering Text Features: Narrative Versus Informational Text

The opening activity of a workshop that I gave on the Common Core on Friday to my colleagues had us moving around the room, thinking and talking about the text features of narrative text versus information text, which I broke down further into the content areas of science, math and social studies. The carousel activity was designed to spark our thinking about content area reading, in particular, as that was the focus of a lot of our discussions that day.

Here are the charts we ended up with:
text features narrative

text features info math

text features info science

text features info history
Peace (in the share),


App Review: HistoryMaps

One of the major shifts in the Common Core is the move towards reading informational texts. This includes charts, graphs, maps and more. So when I noticed this free app — HistoryMaps — I was curious. Maps can tell amazing stories, but students of course needs strategies for learning how to “read” a visual display of information. This particular app can be helpful, although you should know that its name tells you exactly what it is: a collection of historical maps (and very Europe-focused). There’s almost no text, and very little historical reference to the maps (other than some time periods).

But that lack of information is what makes this app so fascinating. What can we infer from the map of Omaha Beach from the WW II section? Where do troops land and what was the landscape like? How about Waterloo in 1815? Or the layout of the city of Paris during the French Revolution? And what did the European continent look like in 814 after the death of Charles the Great? Pull up the map and see. One of the more fascinating maps is the Map of Discovery, which shows the paths of explorers from 1340-1600.

Sure, you can probably find many of these maps with some online searching. But why bother? This free app has them all, handy and ready to be “read.”

Peace (in the map),

PS — it’s free but you have to put up with some banner ads at the bottom of the page. Just thought you should know that.