Monthly Archives: March 2012

Live Deliberately Essay Contest

World Wide Waldens

World Wide Waldens, an education initiative of the Walden Woods Project that promotes environmental reflection and action activities for middle school, high school, and college students, is sponsoring its annual Live Deliberately Essay Contest for students. There are three age categories: 13-15 years old, 16-18 years old, and 19-21 years old. To enter the contest, students should submit a 500-word personal essay in response to the following passage from “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Thoreau’s Walden:

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake.”

Submissions are due by May 15, 2012.

Writing in Walden Woods

For more information, tips and suggestions, access to the online submission form and winning essays from previous contests, please consult essay contest website.

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Filed under Nonfiction Writing, Student Opportunities

Balancing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the past week,  the cyber conversation about the Common Core State Standards’ call for increased reading of nonfiction texts in English Language Arts has intensified.

Education WeekEducation Week‘s featured discussion poses the questions:

  • Are you in favor of more nonfiction reading in school?
  • What challenges arise when trying to teach students to read and understand informational texts?
  • And what are some nonfiction books you would recommend for high school students?

Celebrate 100 years of NCTE!Participants in NCTE’s Connected Community have also been debating the issue in a thread titled “mandated nonfiction”.

As you may recall, Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards provides the following rationale for the shift to increased reading of informational texts:

There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practice have not done enough to foster the independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts. K–12 students are, in general, given considerable scaffolding—assistance from teachers, class discussions, and the texts themselves (in such forms as summaries, glossaries, and other text features)—with reading that is already less complex overall than that typically required of students prior to 1962. What is more, students today are asked to read very little expository text—as little as 7 and 15 percent of elementary and middle school instructional reading, for example, is expository (Hoffman, Sabo, Bliss, & Hoy, 1994; Moss & Newton, 2002; Yopp & Yopp, 2006)—yet much research supports the conclusion that such text is harder for most students to read than is narrative text (Bowen & Roth, 1999; Bowen, Roth, & McGinn, 1999, 2002; Heller & Greenleaf, 2007; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), that students need sustained exposure to expository text to develop important reading strategies (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Kintsch, 1998, 2009; McNamara, Graesser, & Louwerse, in press; Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005; van den Broek, Lorch, Linderholm, & Gustafson, 2001; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartmann, 1995), and that expository text makes up the vast majority of the required reading in college and the workplace (Achieve, Inc., 2007). Worse still, what little expository reading students are asked to do is too often of the superficial variety that involves skimming and scanning for particular, discrete pieces of information; such reading is unlikely to prepare students for the cognitive demand of true understanding of complex text. (p. 3)

In the Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3-12David Coleman and Susan Pimental, lead authors of the standards, elaborate on the types of texts to be infused to meet this call. At the secondary level, they specify which types of texts would fit the term “literary nonfiction”:

Range and Quality of Texts: The Common Core State Standards require a greater focus on informational text in elementary school and literary nonfiction in ELA classes in grades 6–12.

Grades 6–12: ELA programs include substantially more literary nonfiction. The Common Core State Standards require aligned ELA curriculum materials in grades 6–12 to include a blend of literature (fiction, poetry, and drama) and a substantial sampling of literary nonfiction, including essays; speeches; opinion pieces; biographies; journalism; and historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience. (See p. 57 of the standards for more details.) Most ELA programs and materials designed for them will need to increase substantially the amount of literary nonfiction they include. The standards emphasize arguments (such as those in the U.S. foundational documents) and other literary nonfiction that is built on informational text structures rather than literary nonfiction that is structured as stories (such as memoirs or biographies). Of course, literary nonfiction extends well beyond historical documents to include the best of nonfiction written for a broad audience on a wide variety of topics, such as science, contemporary events and ideas, nature, and the arts. (Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards provides several examples of high-quality literary nonfiction.) (pp. 4-5)

The New York TimesWhat’s important to keep in mind, however, is that the CCSS are not asking us to abandon the reading of literature. Recent evidence of the potential benefits of reading fiction appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. In an op-ed piece entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul summarizes findings from neuroscience on how sensory language and figures of speech stimulate the brain and how the overlap between the neural networks that process stories and real-life social interactions can help improve our social skills and empathy. While Appendix A of the CCSS document does not reference these studies, half of the reading standards pertain to the reading of literature.

In the March 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, University of New Hampshire professor Thomas Newkirk may help English teachers who have focused their instruction predominantly on literature find the inclusion of nonfiction more palatable. While acknowledging the CCSS’s call for a reduction in narrative reading,  Newkirk argues that “narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing” (p. 29). Newkirk furthers his argument by citing cognitive psychologist and literary critic Mark Turner, who asserts: “Narrative imagining–story–is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining” (cited in Newkirk, 2012, p. 29). While Turner’s assertion dates to 1996, the recent neuroscience studies seem to bear him out. And Newkirk contends that we never really read just for raw information. In fact, he observes that textbooks are not read but are instead consulted, much like a dictionary, because their organization and formatting do not require sustained attention to the development of an idea. Newkirk counters that engaging nonfiction texts–even specialized academic writing and research reports–tell a story for they address unmet social problems, irreconcilable positions in a field of study, or new evidence that challenges previous thinking. As writers of these texts–what the authors of the CCSS refer to as literary nonfiction–take us on a journey of learning and discovery, they use narrative in complex and embedded ways. Newkirk advises us not to move beyond narrative; instead he challenges us to help our students uncover how narrative drives both fiction and nonfiction texts.

As we have been transitioning to using more literary nonfiction in our English Language Arts classes, we have at times struggled to find nonfiction that would merit the descriptor “literary” and that would also merit the repeated close reading that the CCSS calls for as well. In a recent tweet, Carol Jago (@CarolJago) recommended a source for texts that would challenge students to consider conflicting perspectives on questions of substantial human interest: the John Templeton Foundation Big Questions Essay Series. In this series, great contemporary thinkers from a variety of fields share their attempts to answer six “Big Questions” in an essay format. These essays can be used for close readings that could serve as the foundation for Socratic Seminar discussions (Carol Jago’s suggestion) and can also serve as models for students for writing their own essays.  Links to more literary nonfiction can be found on a companion page, Big Questions Online, which features columns, blog posts, and feature articles.

Profile PictureAnother source of literary nonfiction mentioned in the Twitter discussion thread #engchat is Longreads: The best long-form stories on the web which is updated daily from sources including The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and The New Yorker. The site has a searchable archive and a subject index. For updates on new postings you can follow Longreads on Twitter (@longreads) or Tumblr, or you can like Longreads on Facebook.

If you find these sources valuable in helping you to infuse more literary nonfiction into your instruction and in helping students discover the narrative drive in nonfiction, I hope you will share your successes in the comment section.


Filed under Common Core Standards

Figment — Award-Winning Digital Writing Community for Teens

Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
From the Los Angeles Times:
2011 Innovator’s Award

“The Innovator’s Award recognizes the people and institutions that are doing cutting edge work to bring books, publishing and storytelling into the future, whether in terms of new business models, new technologies or new applications of narrative art.

figment™ LOGOTYPE - RGB - 300 dpi

Figment is a digital writing community with connections to – and roots in – traditional publishing, a space where young writers and readers are encouraged to share and comment on each other’s creativity, an early adaptor of the digital landscape as a publishing and literary territory, and a site in constant evolution, developing and expanding to meet both the needs of its users and its own digital imperatives. Figment is the third winner of the Innovator’s Award whose previous winners include Dave Eggers and Powell’s Books.”

Have you heard about Figment? Are any of your students Figs (members)?

This site offers students the opportunity to share and receive feedback on their writing, receive advice about writing from published authors, participate in challenges and contests, and publish their work.

I hope you’ll take a look at this site and think about how it might be used to promote student writing.


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Filed under Creative Writing, Student Opportunities

Smithsonian American Art Museum–Clarice Smith National Teacher Institutes

The Smithsonian American Art Museum invites you to join colleagues from across the country for an exploration of the connections among American art, technology, and your curricula. The museum is sponsoring two week-long institutes in Washington, D.C. and the opportunity to stay connected with newfound colleagues and museum staff following the institutes.

Institutes will be held July 9-13, 2012, and July 30-August 3, 2012. Teachers of core subject areas for grades 6-12 are encouraged to apply; however, priority will be given to ELA and social studies teachers.

Online applications are due April 2, 2012.

A limited number of $500 scholarships for institute participation are also available. Scholarship applications are due April 30, 2012.

For more information about the institute, the application, and the scholarship opportunity:

English: The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the ...

Image via Wikipedia

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Filed under Professional Development, Teacher Opportunities

New York State Archives Student Research Awards

New York State Archives: Where History Goes on Record

The New York State Archives has announced its twenty-second annual Student Research Awards program to promote and recognize excellence in student research. The main purpose of the awards program is to encourage students to explore the wealth of historical records in New York State.

Three awards will be presented: one each for grades 4-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12.

Individual and group entries are welcome and must be submitted by July 1, 2012.

Entries may be in the following formats:

  • Website, PowerPoint presentation, or other computer-based format
  • Exhibit
  • Documentary
  • Performance
  • Proposal for historic marker
  • Research paper

All nominations must be made by teachers, library media specialists, or administrators in the school attended by the student or groups of students.

For official guidelines and entry forms:

New York State Archives

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Filed under Nonfiction Writing, Student Opportunities

Young Writers Summer Camp

The Genesee Valley Writing Project will be sponsoring a summer camp for students in grades 6 through 8 from August 6-10, 2012. Two sessions will be offered–a morning session focusing on creative writing and digital media and an afternoon session exploring nonfiction writing styles. Students may apply for one or both sessions. Applications are due June 29, 2012.

For further information:

2012 Young Writers Summer Camp Poster

Young Writers Summer Camp Brochure and Application

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Filed under Creative Writing, Nonfiction Writing, Student Opportunities

Genesee Valley Writing Project Extends Application Deadline for Summer Institute to March 15

Back on February 14, I posted information about the Genesee Valley Writing Project’s Summer Institute for K-12 teachers. I have just learned that the application deadline for the institute has been extended to March 15.

I hope you will consider taking advantage of this opportunity to learn more about teaching writing from colleagues and from previous institute fellows.

The link below will take you the University of Rochester’s Genesee Valley Writing Project Summer Institute webpage:


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Norman Mailer High School Writing Awards for Students and Teachers


The Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English are again collaborating to sponsor writing awards for teachers and students. This year’s category for both competitions is fiction.

Student submissions are due by noon CST on April 30, 2012.

Teacher submission are due by noon CST on July 6, 2012.

For information about all competitions:

For information about the high school student competition:

For information about the high school teacher competition:

(Discrepancy alert: This site indicates that submissions are due on July 23 rather than July 6. The Norman Mailer Center site sets a July 6 submission deadline. I’d recommend submitting by July 6.)

I hope you will encourage your students to enter, and I encourage you to consider entering the teachers’ competition!

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Filed under Creative Writing, Student Opportunities, Teacher Opportunities