Next week, the class will begin to read the book Home of the Brave.

It's about a boy who comes to America from another country. I won't tell you more than this--because you'll be discovering so much as you listen to his story.

The first three pages of his story are below. You'll see that he is unfamiliar with many things he sees in America--can you figure out what he means by how he describes them? There are many reasons why he describes them as he does--not just that he is from another country. Can you guess what those reasons might be?

A good writer is not only willing to look at topics or objects from all different angles, a good writers is willing to look at topics or objects as if he or she has never seen them before. A good writer is also aware of how he or she is influenced by his or her own background.

Assignment: This week is Halloween. Make a list of all the things you might see on Halloween (at least 5)--pumpkins, costumes, black cats--For each of the items on the list, write a description as if you were Kek--seeing it for the very first time, not knowing anything about Halloween.

Then, write a short letter to Kek and tell him about Halloween. It's your perspective--you can include what you think about it, how you feel about it--but be sure Kek understands what a Halloween is like in Asheville, North Carolina, the United States.


Good writers show more than tell.  And they do this by unpacking words and sentences like you would unpack a suitcase. They pull out the images and the feelings and the details that help a reader to SEE and EXPERIENCE.  What does this mean?
I can TELL you that I had a bad morning, but what does that mean? What you think is a bad morning might be very different.

Or I can show you...

I thought there was nothing worse than getting in the shower and discovering that there is no more hot water. But it turns out that what is worse is a shower in water that must have come all the way from Antarctica, so cold it made my teeth chatter and my lips turn blue.  I got through it and then discovered that I had no power in the house. I did have daylight, so I had light--but daylight doesn't equal heat, doesn't equal a hot breakfast, and it sure doesn't equal COFFEE.
I figured I'd just get ready for the day as fast I could and then get breakfast and coffee at the Dunkin Donuts down the street. As soon as I walked in there, I could smell the muffins and the coffee and felt a big smile on my face. And I kept on smiling until I had the coffee cup warming my hand, the muffin in a bag on the counter and I reached into my pocketbook for my wallet.

Uh oh.

New Assignment:

1. Go back to your photograph paragraph. Ask a partner to read your paragraph and suggest places where you could unpack and SHOW what is happening or what the photograph means to you. Unpack these places by writing on a separate sheet of paper, just as you wrote the answers to the big potato, small potato questions. Don't worry right now about how it will all go together--we'll talk about that soon!

2. Then, write another paragraph. Write about something that happened in your life or the life of a character. You choose from the list below. See if you can SHOW so well through your writing that I can know which topic you chose--you can't use the word or phrase that is in bold.

Something happened that made you (or your character) sad.
Something happened that made you (or your character) feel like you had the best family in the world.
Something happened that was scary.
Something happened that made you (or your character)angry.
Something happened that made you (or your character)happy.

Don't forget-- I am still looking for questions about the photo below. I can't upack my story until I get a question from everyone in the class.

What is the story behind this photograph? What questions can you ask to help me dig deep? Look closely, notice EVERYTHING! Try to ask one small potato question and one big potato question. Next week, I'll share the answers and the story with you!

Then, work with a partner and help them to dig deeper into their photograph descriptions--help him or her to find the story.
I always think of a first draft of a story ( fiction or non-fiction) like a garden bed. I know that I want to dig deeper and find more of the story. One way to do this is to ask someone to read my first draft and ask questions. Just like empathetic listening and questioning, I ask for empathetic reading and questions.

This means that a reader isn't going to give suggestions or correct my writing and even tell me if he or she likes what I have written.

He or she will simply ask the questions to help me dig deeper. When I consider the questions and answer them for my story's benefit, then I might dig a little deeper.

I think of those questions like the tops of potato plants. They are green and leafy and when you grab one and pull it up, you'll find the potato. Sometimes the potato that comes up is big and fat, sometimes it's tiny. I find that questions are like that, too. Some questions are about specific details and to clarify something (like: what time of the day does this happen?). I think of these as small potato questions--because they can be answered pretty quickly. Then there are the big potato questions and they usually involve more thought and more writing. They also usually involve WHY or WHAT (Not always!)  For example, why did the girl want her father to move away? Or, what did the prince want most of all and why?
Many of us are able to think of small potato questions--what color was her hair? What kind of house did they live in? Sometimes we have to think a little harder about questions that will pull up a big potato. Some people call these questions "open ended"  because the answer might go on and on. But, for our class, we'll call them big potato questions.

Now, the other reason I ask a friend to read my first draft and ask questions is to see if I am being clear and to see if I have raised questions that will make my reader want to turn the page and find out the answer. So, if I get asked some big potato questions that I know will be answered later in the story, I can assume that I'm doing a good job with creating suspense. Remember, our reader will  be pulled along in a story by what he or she wants to find out.

September 27 2010
A good writer listens well and asks questions that will help him or her to understand and clarify. Here a couple of quotations that I try to live by:

You are not really listening if you aren’t willing to be changed by what you hear.

Listening requires us to do only that—one cannot truly listen and be doing something else at the same time.

To often, we listen to our friends, teachers, family etc while doing something else, or while thinking about what WE WANT TO SAY. I am quite guilty of doing both. But I try, every day, to do this a little better. I am always amazed about how just listening to someone else encourages them to tell me more--and I get to learn more. Asking questions that show I've really been listening really makes the other person feel like they've been heard. In the months ahead, you'll use the same principles when reading a classmate's writing or when interviewing someone you don't know about their concerns.

Empathic listening and questioning takes practice--so in class we did just that. First we read Fifth Grade Autobiography by Rita Dove. She describes a photograph in the poem. After the exercise, we talked about what happened. Some students said that when they were listening completely it was like they could see the photograph. Other students said that they'd never been listened to so attentively. Still other students said that it was hard work but fun.

With Your Partner--

  • Sit, directly facing each other
  • Take turns speaking and listening
  • Ask questions only during the question round
From your memory, describe a photograph that you really like from your own life. Give as many details as you can and say why you like the photo and how you feel about it.

The Speaker: Look directly at your partner. If you finish speaking before time is up, just sit quietly.
The Listener: While the speaker is talking, listen only. Don’t comment or ask questions. Look directly at your partner.

During the question round:


1. Make sure you heard your partner right--

So, what I heard you saying is…

2. Ask a question of your partner that will get them to expand on what they said.
 Do you think…

 Do you feel…

 Do you hope…

    Speaker: Answer the questions as best you can.
Assignment: Find the photograph and bring it in to class.

Write a paragraph about the picture—is it the same as you remembered? If not, why do you think that is? How is it different? How do you feel when you look at the picture now?

Fifth Grade Autobiography by Rita Dove

I was four in this photograph fishing

with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.

My brother squats in poison ivy.

His Davy Crockett cap

sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail

flounces down the back of his sailor suit.

My grandfather sits to the far right

in a folding chair,

and I know his left hand is on

the tobacco in his pants pocket

because I used to wrap it for him

every Christmas. Grandmother's hips

bulge from the brush, she's leaning

into the ice chest, sun through the trees

printing her dress with soft

luminous paws.

I am staring jealously at my brother;

the day before he rode his first horse, alone.

I was strapped in a basket

behind my grandfather.

He smelled of lemons. He's died--

but I remember his hands.