February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Finding a Voice | Writers’ Guides


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By Vicki Reutter

Three new writing guides, packed with ideas and inspirations, will harness the creativity and imagination of middle grade students while offering educators specific models for aligning Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to writing skills.

Tapped as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Walter Dean Myers is campaigning to keep kids reading and  writing. His latest title, Just Write: Here’s How  (HarperCollins, 2012; Gr 5 Up), is a kid-friendly, nuts-and-bolts approach to nonfiction writing and revision. Myers focuses primarily on narrative and its ability to channel the young imagination, personal experiences, and to motivate kids to use language creatively. He laces his experience co-writing Kick (HarperTeen, 2011; Gr 6-9) with 13-year-old Ross Workman throughout the book, highlighting their methodology, revision process, and the satisfaction derived from the collaboration. Most valuable to young readers (and to teachers) is Myers’ six-box model for organizing fiction ideas, including: “character & problem,” “obvious solutions,” “insight & inner conflict,” “growth & change,” “taking action,” and “resolution.” The author also details a four-box nonfiction model covering: “question,” “evidence,” “explanation,” and “answer,” which will be of interest to those forming lesson plans for writing informative and explanatory texts.

Specifically for a young male audience, Ralph Fletcher’s Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know  (Holt, 2012; Gr 4-12), encourages boys to write narratives in the style of their favorite reading material: blood and battles, fantasy, scary stories, sports, and humor. For boys inclined to recreate fiery explosions, invent frightening creatures, or revel in describing yucky stuff, Fletcher provides plenty of advice. In writing humor, for example, the author discusses word choice and use of dialogue in spoof, parody, and satire, offering a funny and mildly irreverent letter to Santa (written by son, Joe Fletcher), and a fifth grader’s piece in which he alternates between talking to a pumpkin and whispering side comments about the pumpkin to his audience.

For sports action, Fletcher cautions against writing play-by-play action, overloaded with scores or statistics, and offers passages that relay the quirks, fears, and inner struggle of the main character to help readers understand what the athlete is thinking. A short interview with author Robert Lipsyte underscores the notion of sports being a natural subject to develop conflicts, relationships, and ethics within an action-based plot.

Fletcher relates the revision process to finessing a skateboard trick and suggests questions to consider when revising. His final words of advice are, “Imagine riding a bike downhill, going fast, bumping up and down, just trying to hold on. Writing should feel like that. Write fast, write downhill, go with the flow.”

The cover of Vicki Hambleton and Cathleen Greenwood’s So You Want to Be a Writer? How to Write, Get Published, and Maybe Even Make It Big!  (S & S, 2012; Gr 5-9), may hold more girl-appeal for this same middle-grade group, but its content is not gender specific. The book explores many more types of writing, such as journalism, poetry, and sci-fi than Myers’ and Fletcher’s titles, and readers can take a quiz to see what genre suits them best, or try writing exercises to develop secret conversations, acrostic poetry, and odes-to-the-ordinary. Fill-in-the-blank pages are presented for character and setting sketches, and checklists point to sources for inspiration, the functions of a writing group, and the uses of reader feedback. Quick interviews with young adult authors Chris Crutcher, Wendelin Van Draanen, Todd Strasser, and others, reinforce the importance of revision.

All three titles contain plenty of mentor-text samples, echo the value of free writing, and offer students opportunities to incorporate their own experiences in writing exercises, dovetailing nicely with CCSS challenges for young writers to practice lifelong skills of developing syntax, organizing ideas, and revising work.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS; CCSS Initiative, 2010) tie-ins can be found in the Writing Strand under “Text Types and Purposes” and “Production and Distribution of Writing” for both K-5, and 6-12 levels.

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