|Stephen Kramer's two-page introduction in his non-fiction picture book (pictured at right) uses a great technique that students can discuss and imitate. It's so simple. Before the author describes what you would find in a cave, he tells you what you would NOT find. Students enjoy trying this technique for themselves. Writing teachers learn to spot these unique techniques in short pieces of published text, and they learn to inspire students to invent their own style tricks through imitation of such tricks in different contexts or for different purposes.
In Praise of Teacher/Author Stephen Kramer: When I popped open a copy of Stephen Kramer's Caves at a display booth at an NCTE Conference many years back, I had no idea his non-fiction picture book's first two paragraphs would change the way I presented writing lessons for the rest of my career. My first impression of his writing was, "Wow, this science writer has a great editor," but then I realized he was using a stylistic writing technique that I could actually identify and explain. You hear teachers use the word style a lot when discussing writing, but I've never had a teacher show me how to develop my own style. It's like the writing trait voice; it's easy to spot voice in a writer's work, but it's hard to explain how it happened to someone who doesn't have voice already as one of their writing tools. But there...in the first two paragraphs of Stephen Kramer's Caves, I saw exactly what he did to create a voice and to showcase his style. His technique was completely imitate-able, and I'd never before found a mentor text that would help me explain that so clearly. Want to teach kids to develop style or voice? Then have them imitate other writer's style and voice techniques, but you can only do this if you can explain what the author did with words to create his/her own style.
Before I tell you about the text and its style, allow me to tell you a little more about Stephen Kramer, whom I've admired ever since and have never had the pleasure of meeting. He teaches fifth grade science in Washington, and he has many books on scientific topics and baseball. In 2003--about the time I was analyzing his style for my original lesson at WritingFix, he was penning this remarkable letter, which is one of the nicest, most sincere pieces of writing from a teacher I've ever come across. Read it. Tell me I'm wrong. I'll bet you can't.
I will also direct you to an essay Stephen Kramer wrote (called "No Training Wheels"), which was included in Vicki Spandel's wonderful read for all writing teachers who detest formulaic, dry writing assignments: The 9 Rights of Every Writer. I'll share with you the first few sentences from Kramer because--when you compare these sentences to how he introduced Caves--you will recognize a pattern that will help you explain to students what style is: a special tool a writer knows about and puts into play when it's appropriate. His essay begins with "No training wheels. No steadying hand on the seat. No one to catch you if you fall. Every time I begin a new piece of writing, I'm reminded of what it's like to ride a bicycle for the first time"
I Share a Teacher Model long before I read the Mentor Text's Introduction: I like to have my students see an example of my writing right from the start. A week or two in to the school year, I pass out the following letter to them once I have firmly established that I am "alpha-dog" in the classroom, and they understand that I expect them to come to class each day ready and willing to write and learn. Here is my letter:
I'm pleased to tell you that you have come to a very unique Language Arts classroom. Here there will be no seating charts. There will be no grammar worksheets. There will be no "Answer the questions at the end of the story or poem in your textbook." There will also be no assigned writing prompts. I don't teach English that way because I personally don't learn that way. I don't like straight rows of desks because you cannot discuss good ideas with the back of another student's head. I don't like silence in my classroom but I don't want disrespectful blurting either. I don't want to be the teacher whose ideas you memorize and spit back at me on a test or quiz; I want you to know that I value your unique ideas that are sparked by the ideas I will be presenting to you every day to think about.
In exchange for your respect of my classroom and of each other, you will be challenged weekly to interpret and discuss interesting pieces of writing: novels, articles, stories, poems, songs. Instead of me assigning you a list of vocabulary words to memorize, you will bring in new words every week and teach them to each other. Every day you will be invited to fill your greatest tool--your writer's notebook--with the thoughts that are important to you, not the thoughts that are important to me. My goal is for you to find and respect your own ideas enough to try new tricks with expressing them using our amazing English language. I will show you many tricks this year. If you learn these tricks, you will be able to express yourself to the world in a way that will allow you to soar to the top. Language skills give you an edge up in this amazing world we live in.
After twenty-five years of teaching, I still learn and retain something new about English every day I come to this classroom. I expect you to do the same.
|If you were to write a letter like this, borrowing the "Start with What Isn't There" technique from author Stephen Kramer, what would your letter say? This summer might be a great time to compose a letter if you want to share this lesson next year with your students.
When my students read the first paragraph of this brief letter, I look carefully for the ones who silently mouth the word "Yes!" as they learn all the things I don't do that many of my more traditional teaching friends do. For some reason, they think not doing grammar worksheets means that my class will be easy; eventually, they figure out that my way of making them apply grammar to their writing is not easy...but it's more fun than a grammar worksheet, so I mouth the word "Yes!" along with them.
I ask them, "Why did some of you feel so positive when I told you all the things we would NOT do? Aren't NOT's supposed to be negative? Negatives shouldn't make you feel good." That leads to a good discussion, which invariably leads my students to a discussion of foods they hate ("If you told us we would NEVER have to eat liver again, then that would be good."). I suspect middle schoolers minds and stomachs are directly connected.
I tell them I want them to try my technique in a quick piece of writing about their bedrooms, their lockers, or their backpacks. What could they tell me is NOT in one of these three personal places that would put a POSITIVE SPIN on how we should feel about them as individual thinkers. Because they are very new to my writing teaching style, some of them need the security blanket of an advance organizer to make their brains start working, so I have this brainstorming sheet (which also has a teacher model) to help them arrange enough thoughts to start building a short paragraph that imitates my letter's style, which I will soon admit to them that I borrowed from author Stephen Kramer from his book Caves.
Most of my students write about their rooms when given the option, and I am fine with that; I suspect the school year is still so new to them that they haven't formed a relationship with their lockers or backpacks quite yet. I have received a lot of great descriptions over the years, but the following one by Brandon when I was teaching high school remains one of the best I ever got:
by Brandon, eleventh grade
I enter my room. No silence here. It is an area void of any order or neatness. I know only by faith that the floor is even there, hidden beneath mounds of dirty and clean clothes. The walls, invisible under posters and pictures, souvenirs and snapshots, haven’t seen the light of day in years.
I take a step further in, being careful to avoid what could be hiding under the mounds of stuff that buries my floor. The stereo is booming beside my bed, which is unmade. This is a room of beautiful disorder. All four walls are one big collage.
(Click here to open a one-page handout with Brandon's writing on it.)
I ask students to circle all the negative words and negative suffixes and prefixes used in the piece. I explain that I had shown Brandon my letter, and I had explained the style technique (Writing about what isn't there before showing your reader what is), and I challenged him to write using the same style choice. "Did he copy my writing by doing this?" I ask, and the answer is always no, but it's a good discussion. "Did he use the same stylistic technique better than me?" I ask next, and usually they say he did--unanimously.
I explain that THIS IS WHAT WRITERS DO! A good writer spots tricks and techniques in a piece of writing they have read, comprehended, and then analyzed. Then, the writer tries out the same technique using a subject that personal to them. I explain that I wrote about my classroom, and Brandon wrote about his own room. I ask, "What other places do you think you might write about using the stylistic technique of first focusing on what isn't there?" I let my students brainstorm this in small groups, encouraging them to remember their list so that they might try the technique out the next time we have sacred writing time. You'd be surprised how many of them take me up on the challenge. I say, "Congratulations! You've just learned something valuable that all good writers know: how to spot and borrow a technique to help you develop your own style and techniques. You're now one step closer to being a better writer."
Now it's time for a true confession to my students. I bring out my copy of Stephen Kramer's Caves, and I say, "So here's the deal--I didn't create the stylistic technique that you have recently used. I borrowed it from an author named Stephen Kramer who used the same technique in the introduction of his non-fiction book on caves. Kramer wanted you--the reader--to feel a certain way about a cave before he started explaining the science behind a cave's creation. What do you think he will tell you isn't in a cave to help set a mood?" The students brainstorm for two or three minutes, and we share our best answers. Very rarely do students think of the very specific items Kramer actually used, and they discover this when I finally read just the first two pages of the book aloud to them.
I point out to the students how I love the way the pages of Kramer's picture book were set up visually. In the first half of the introduction (page 1 of the book) the page is completely black and the letters are light blue, showing you the darkness of a cave; for the second half of the introduction (page two), Kramer speaks of flashlights entering, and the accompanying picture shows explorers looking at amazing cave formations in the light. I call this the "Lights off/Lights on" writing technique, and again we talk about someplace original we could borrow the same technique to write about.
I'm a differentiated lesson planner, and I always try to have a few "bonus skills" to point out to my stronger writers as well as provide scaffolding (like the models of writing and the advance organizer from above) for my writers who need extra support. Two more things to point out from this short-but-very-effective introduction that your stronger writers students might be ready to latch on to:
- I believe Kramer wanted to make the reader experience a "mood" by telling you what's not there, and he uses the "what isn't there" technique to create this element of the writing trait known as voice. I let the kids guess what mood he was trying to set; personally, I think he wanted the reader to feel cold when reading the first page. Suggest to students that they think of a mood they want to establish (relaxation, fear, curiosity, danger, etc.) and then choose their "what isn't there" options based on the mood they want to set. If you say, "There are no pink elephants here," then the writer is just confused with this technique; however, of you say of the path on the cliff, "There are no guardrails to be seen," and the reader has to feel a sense of danger or concern. That's manipulative mood creation.
- On page 2 of the picture book, I like to point out Kramer's use of action verbs. Too many students, when describing a setting, fall into the "linking verb trap," and they only use forms of the 'to be' verb (was, were, is, are, am, be, been, and being). Kramer avoids that trap (unlike me in my classroom letter and Brandon in his room description), and if you have strong writers already, this is a good differentiated challenge you can share with them. Try to only use action verbs to describe your setting. It's actually tough to pull off, but Kramer's second page is a perfect example of someone pulling it off successfully. There's not a linking verb to be found on page two of that setting description. I wish that skill came as easily to me as it apparently does to Stephen Kramer.
What Words of Wisdom I can Share about the Writing Trait Known as Voice. I have a personal hero and mentor in my friend Karen McGee; she is a now-retired kindergarten teacher who used to co-teach a summer college course with me that focused on writing methods for teachers. During our time together, she said so many wise things that I still carry with me in order to share them with the older students I tend to work with; one of those wise things focused on the trait of voice. She once said, "Corbett, you can't teach a student to have voice. What you can do is give them permission to try on someone else's voice for a while when they write, and eventually their own voices will develop." I love this Caves-inspired writing prompt that became my first full lesson at WritingFix because it does precisely what Karen was talking about: it allows students to try out a real author's voice technique in a variety of contexts. By the way, you can click the image of the Voice Sticky Note (above right) and have a sheet of them to print for your students to use when self-analyzing or responding to each other's voice during writer's workshop time; you can purchase all of my response and revision sticky notes at my products page here at Always Write.
They say voice is the "fingerprint of the author" or the "personality of the paper," and admittedly that's some great figurative language to help us make sense of this most mysterious writing trait. Admit it though. You can't teach a student to have a fingerprint or a personality. You can have them analyze (a deep thinking skill, Common Core!) others' techniques for establishing voice and allowing your students to play with them in original ways. The trick is that you have to teach yourself to actively spot techniques of style and voice. With Stephen Kramer's writing, I've just shown you how it's done. The Caves mentor text was my first success story in really spotting a writing technique that led to voice and style. Do you have what it takes to start analyzing your favorite voice-filled writers to figure out a few of their imitate-able techniques for making their personality leap from the pages? I didn't used to think I could; fifteen years later with all my lessons focused on using some type of mentor text, I can't stop myself from doing it when I read. Sometimes, I'll admit, it's annoying. I stop myself from the flow of reading to analyze the structures or style tricks...and I lose my reading flow. That's why spend so much time really analyzing picture books because I can always go back and read them again if I've lost my flow. My favorite picture book authors who have styles that I believe "pop" off the page if you're looking for them: Patricia MacLachlan, Lester Laminack, Ralph Fletcher, Jane Yolen. Check out a few of their books from the public library and start practicing.
Adaptations...A Dozen Years after Originally Sharing Stephen Kramer's Style and Voice! As I said, it's been twelve years since I first introduced this lesson to WritingFix. I've taught the technique to first-graders, and I've taught it to high school seniors. I've also taught it to dozens of teachers and administrators during my 7 Elements Teacher Workshops! Participants almost always produce a short piece of writing they're proud of. Here are a few original ways students used the technique in ways that went beyond the lesson I originally presented to them.
The Technique in a Poem
The Technique in an Expository Report
The Technique as a Literature Response
|Rain Forest Poem|
by Konor, fourth grade writer
Towering trees blocking the sun.
No houses, no people,
Nothing to do
Except look at the beautiful glory.
It’s every animal for
Himself out there.
Jaguars glaring from tree to tree.
The prey and predators are lurking.
Snakes are slithering, rats are
So full of wonder.
|The Mars Rover
by Joshua, fifth grade writer
The planet had never been stepped on or known to have any life. No working probe had reached this world. Almost no one knew anything of the Red Planet until now.
If you were on Mars in the year of 2003, you could look up into the atmosphere and see an object parachuting down to you, even though nothing lives on Mars. The object was a space rover wrapped in a mechanical ball. When it unfolded, NASA had to direct it down the ramp. There was a big problem. The rover was too big and it wasn't facing the ramp. Finally, it made it down safe. This was one small roll for the rover but one big step for mankind.
|Calypso’s Island (from The Odyssey)|
by Emma, ninth grade writer
No monsters inhabit this island. No dirt dares be seen on this island. This is not a place to feel uptight or afraid. No evidence of danger can be found here: no bones; no flesh; no sadness. There are places filled with feelings of hurt and danger, but this is not one of those places.
One enters this island and feels an overwhelming sense of peace. One is welcomed by the sweet scent of flowers and ocean breeze. Water spouts out of fountains into streams, where birds rest and animals graze. Vines wrap around this cave that’s blanketed with flowers. This place is filled with beauty and passion. This is Calypso’s cave.
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