What's going well? 
What would I teach next?
Looking closely at upper grade nonfiction
by Julie Patterson
IPYW Writer-in-Residence 

In her book  Hidden Gems , and in all of her workshops and coaching sessions, visiting scholar Katherine Bomer challenges us to look at student work with an eye for what's going well, rather than focusing on what needs to be "fixed."
With Katherine's wise counsel in mind, we periodically showcase student work and help teachers look at it as they might when conferring with the writer. Today we are looking at a piece of nonfiction that appears in our 2015 anthology entitled  Listening Still
nonfiction article by student writer
What I notice first when I read this article is the student's effective use of statistics. Admittedly, it probably sticks out because I've too often seen "shocking statistics" inserted so randomly at the beginning of pieces of persuasive writing. Unlike many other student texts I see, "Bike Safety" weaves statistics smoothly into the narrative; they sound like they belong.
There are additional strengths in this piece as well. The writer has articulated a problem and then presented a variety of ways the problem can be addressed --including action all bicyclists should take, readers of this article should take, what one organization is doing...even steps the writer himself took to help change the statistics. He demonstrates his understanding that one way to effectively elaborate on his recommendation to wear helmets is by teaching the reader how to find one with the right fit. He even has an effective conclusion that reminds readers of his key points, offers a little insight into why this subject is important to him and emphasizes its relevance to the reader -- in two concise sentences!
But the text is not perfect.
So what would I say to this writer in conference? How do I decide which strength to acknowledge and which "flaw" to address?
I use what I know about this writer -- what he was doing well and struggling with during our last conference, what he knows and what he doesn't from previous units of study. And I go with my gut. As a reader, I was impressed by his use of statistics, so that's the observation I lead with in our conference. 

But what I want to teach this student next also stems from his use of statistics. I want to ask the writer why he chose these particular statistics, to try to understand why he found them to be most important or most startling of all his research. I want to understand why he made this decision, because what I notice when I read his article is that the story he sets up in the opening paragraph is not the story he delivers.
The writer's word choice in the opening paragraph suggests that bicycle accidents -- and bicyclists' deaths -- are the result of drivers that don't pay enough attention on the road. But in the body of his article, he places primary responsibility for safety on bicyclists themselves. I might try to help the writer see that, given this strong statement in his introduction, he needs to explain what drivers can do to help bicyclists stay safe. Or that he should say outright that he thinks it will be more effective to get bicyclists to take greater precautions, because drivers aren't likely to change. This might add a few lines or a whole new paragraph to the article.
There are certainly other things I could choose to teach the student, but in this instance, I've zeroed in on the mismatch between the set-up in the introduction and the body of his article, because I want to help the student think about whether or not he wrote the article he intended to write. I'm not only interested in helping students craft texts that are mechanically the best they can be but also want to help students find their voices, discover what they have to say about issues that matter to them. So this teaching point -- that the story you set up in your introduction is not the story you delivered -- is critical. If what he really wants to say is something to drivers about bike safety, well, together we can figure out how to revise the article to tackle that task. 

Katherine Bomer returns in June

Katherine returns to Indianapolis this summer to teach us even more about student writing -- this time focusing on essays.

June 15 - 16, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
at Butler University


Get your copy of Listening Still 

"Bike Safety" by Andrew Yager, the student text featured above, is one of a wide variety of poems, memoirs, stories, articles and essays by Indiana students in grades K-8 featured in our 2015 anthology, Listening Still. The book also includes visual art by highly acclaimed  illustrator Michele Wood.  Our book project attracts significant national attention, having been featured in Katherine Bomer's book Hidden Gems and in art magazines including How and Communication Arts.

You can purchase a copy of Listening Still for just $15 plus shipping.