National Writing Project

Book Review: Teaching Powerful Writing, by Bob Sizoo

By: Pen Campbell
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1
Date: Winter 2003

Summary: Campbell compares Sizoo's book to a homemade fruit cake packed with short, well-crafted personal narratives by teachers and professional writers and a wealth of practical tools for teaching.


Teaching Powerful Writing
Written by Bob Sizoo
Scholastic Professional Books, 2001. $14.95; 128 pages.
ISBN 0-439-11111-0
Reviewed by Pen Campbell

A few years ago, I was afforded a rare privilege—and pleasure. As a member of Rural Voices, Country Schools, a three-year research initiative sponsored by the National Writing Project and the Annenberg Rural Challenge to study the teaching of writing in rural schools, I had the opportunity to visit and observe teachers and classrooms in my area—something few of us, as classroom teachers, get a chance to do. Some of those classrooms stand out in my mind still. These were the teachers I wanted to be when I grew up and the classrooms I wanted mine to look like, though none of these standouts were cookie-cutter copies of each other.

What they shared was engagement and good, solid teaching practice. A common feeling in observing in these classrooms was that time went fast. Not that lessons were hurried, but, afterward, I was in awe of the real learning and teaching that had gone on in the same fifty- or seventy-minute period as I'd observed across the hall. Some classrooms were just more dense than others—like the difference between a good rich fruitcake packed with homemade candied orange peel and walnut pieces the size of your thumb and a boxed white cake with the flavor and texture of stale marshmallows.

Like those exemplary classrooms, Bob Sizoo's book Teaching Powerful Writing is fruitcake—and not the pale supermarket brick studded with those gummy red mystery lumps, either—the good homemade kind. Packed into its 128 pages are a view of writing time in Sizoo's sixth grade classroom; twenty-five engaging, well-crafted personal narratives by teachers and professional writers designed to be read aloud in five to ten minutes; as well as a wealth of practical tools for teaching that include forms for managing writing in the classroom, a well-annotated bibliography, and a mother lode of process discussion about writing and the teaching of writing.

This is an eminently comfortable book. At the end of the introduction, Sizoo, who is currently on leave from his teaching position to codirect the Redwood Writing Project, California, says, "To imagine an audience for this book, I've pictured myself in a National Writing Project summer institute discussing my teaching successes and challenges with twenty other teachers, saying, `Here are some strategies that seem to be working. You might want to try some; maybe they'll work for you, too'" (10). Sounds simple—and in some ways this very teacher-friendly book is simple. It offers valuable information in an enjoyable style—straightforward, honest, and to the point.

The book begins with three chapters before moving into twenty-five stories by teacher-writers. In the first chapter, Sizoo welcomes us into his sixth grade classroom in Eureka, California, where he began teaching in 1986, and we observe. Sizoo shares what he calls his beginning-of-the-year "`Here are my expectations' speech" and discusses how he uses his own writing, as well as that of students, to model process. As he points out, "During the school year my students learn to improve their writing by using many strategies, any of which could be the focus of an entire chapter or, in most cases, its own book" (11). Sizoo promises to touch on each briefly and does so masterfully.

There's enough detail here to be truly instructive, as in the case of his discussion of fishbowls—groups of three students who model peer response in front of the classroom. His one-page blueprint, like all of this first section, is practical, specific, and succinct. As a teacher who has used peer response in my own eighth, ninth, and twelfth grade classrooms (pretty successfully, I thought), I found myself immediately making margin notes on what I would steal for my own use, always an indicator of an effective "teacher book." His method of teaching students (and teachers) through modeling and examples is presented so clearly that I also thought immediately of those teachers I've heard say, "My kids just can't do peer response. They can't work in groups." Sizoo walks us through his process step by step and, with honesty and humor, addresses the inevitable snags that crop up:

Only one person speaks at a time in the peer response group method we use, so if any group is engaged in social conversation, I know they're off task and call them back into a whole-group setting. Then I'll say something teacherly like, `With the freedom to work with your peers comes the responsibility to be productive. It appears that you need closer supervision and would rather have me yammer at you.' This is a strategic point at which to take out the grammar textbooks (13).

This passage, of course, validates that long-held student belief that teachers plot together to come up with comments like, "We've all seen snow before."

In chapter 2, Sizoo covers specifics of using "autobiographical incident and firsthand biographical sketches" with the purpose of "Writing Our Lives," as the chapter is titled. Why these particular forms? As he explains in the introduction:

These forms tend to exemplify the ways in which real learning takes place in everyday life. They show that the lessons we learn are not always taught by those people in front of the class holding the chalk, and they show that the primary responsibility to master any lesson lies with the learner. These genres are approachable by all students. Autobiographical incidents require experience plus reflection. A firsthand biographical sketch requires an interaction with someone who has affected one's attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs. All students are experts in living their lives. These genres are also often chosen for standardized writing assessments. Need I say more? (9)

He outlines specifically how he and his class analyze selections they hear and read to develop criteria for effective writing in the particular genre and then use that criteria in developing their own writing. Obviously, this is not exclusively a sixth grade technique; this is any writer's technique, and, like this book as a whole, it can be adapted and applied by writers at any number of levels.

Chapter 3, "Assessing Our Writing" concentrates on Sizoo's answer to one question: "How do we use assessment to help students become better writers?" (20). He tells how students evaluate their own writing, then do the talking when it's time to share their evaluations with parents at conference time. He also discusses the creation of and use of rubrics for individual assignments. Included in the appendices are examples of forms discussed throughout this first section, including the Student Self-Assessment form and others.

In this chapter, as in spots throughout the book, Sizoo thinks out loud in a fishbowl of teaching revision, as it were, to let us share in his process of crafting his classroom. He traces his search for grading effectiveness from his own school days through revisions in the rubric example here in the book and even includes a note on how he'll do it next time. I love that in a teaching book—that feeling of being involved in a great discussion with committed teachers about how we can improve what we—and our students—do together in the classroom.

The main section of Teaching Powerful Writing is made up of twenty-five short, read-aloud stories written by writing project teachers and professional authors. Each of the personal narratives is accompanied by notes about the author, notes from the author about the piece and the process of writing it, and a writing challenge or two connected with a literary technique or with the subject matter of the narrative. Some stories have process comments from editor Sizoo as well, and some have additional exercises for use with students.

The process comments found in the Notes from the Author and often in the Notes from the Editor are a real treasure-trove on a number of levels. Oftentimes, the authors discuss choices they made while writing and revising the piece or pose questions directly to the reader. Sizoo's comments often function as yet another example of modeling that this book so generously provides. We, as readers, are listening in on effective response group comments, and can lead our students back through the text to find how the author chose to answer the question or suggestion posed by the "response group."

What's more, these stories, almost all of which are written by teachers, give students a broader picture of teachers engaged in doing that thing they teach—writing. Students can hear, in this process talk, examples of teachers struggling with the same questions and choices the professional writers face in writing in this genre, struggles that often just happen to center around the very same questions and choices that they themselves face. This is a book designed to teach students and remind teachers that, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, writing is writing is writing—whether it's being done by a student, a teacher, or a professional.

One of the very best things, though, about this book is that these are really good stories. I base that statement on two pieces of evidence. The first is the number of times I've sat down to read "just one story" at the beginning of my planning period and "come to" half an hour later after reading four or five. The other, and more important, reason is because of my students' reactions to the stories. The first time I read one to a particular class of eighth-graders, I got immediate feedback. One student, for whom silent, sustained anything is a real challenge, had listened quietly with rapt attention throughout the entire story.

"That was cool," he pronounced when I'd finished. "Are you going to read from that again?"

After reading John Triska's "Sweet," a story of a less-than-championship sixth grade speller felled by his first attack of true love, I could tell which of my eighth-graders in another class "got it" by the smiles and discreet chuckles here and there. We were well into the follow-up activity when suddenly one young man—somewhat spelling-challenged himself and more than occasionally disengaged in classroom doings—interrupted us with a loud guffaw.

"I get it," he said with a grin. "Sweet."

Although the stories appeal strongly to middle school students, Teaching Powerful Writing is a book useful for teachers across a broad spectrum, not only of grade levels, but of experience levels and teaching styles as well. Pedagogically, it's useful because it's full of sound, practical best-practice advice and materials, but it's also useful for teachers on another level. In the acknowledgments, Bob Sizoo talks about his early experiences with writing ("I hated writing in school"), and first coming to the National Writing Project summer institute ("As the directors explained to their somewhat reluctant audience, you wouldn't take your child to a piano teacher who couldn't play the piano. After overcoming my initial revulsion at writing with peers, I discovered something . . ."). And he's not the only one.

Terry McLaughlin, in her Notes from the Author for her piece "Navigating the Straight and Narrow," confesses, "When I was required to attend a college writing class two years ago, I was horrified to receive an assignment to tell a story about myself. For weeks, I poked through dull memories, searching for some incident I could embellish. As the due date approached, painful insecurities surfaced: My life was boring, nothing in it had deep meaning, and my writing was inadequate to make sense of whatever I managed to think up" (27).

These are comments about the growing pains of becoming a writer. They are certainly not uncommon; they are not even the only ones in this book. I could add my own, and it would fit right in and would feature the same protagonists of terror: the personal narrative, getting response from peers, reading it aloud. When Sizoo and McLaughlin use words like revulsion and horrified, they're not kidding. But as Sizoo goes on to say in the acknowledgments, "After writing to prompts, meeting in a writing response group with other teachers, sharing my work and listening to other teachers share theirs with the whole group, and learning to pay close attention to voice, audience, and purpose, my writing improved. As importantly to my teaching, I began to get hung up at some of the same places in my writing that snagged my students. I returned to my teaching that fall with not only a renewed vigor for teaching writing but with more empathy for some of the problems my students were having and more experience at coping with those problems." This book is valuable not only because it presents students with a picture of teachers as writers, but perhaps even more so because it presents that picture, that model, to us, the teachers.

About the Author Pen Campbell teaches eighth, ninth, and twelfth grade English at Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St. Joseph, Michigan, and is a teacher-consultant with the Third Coast Writing Project, Michigan.

Editor's note: The Quarterly editors asked Bob Sizoo to write a few words about the process of writing and publishing a book. Below is his response.

The Experience of Writing a Book
by Bob Sizoo

Few experiences suitable for discussion with a general audience have aroused in me the excitement I felt as I slid the nine-by-twelve-inch envelope from Scholastic out of the mailbox at the end of our driveway. I knew it contained my first book contract. When I got up to the house, I shoved my copy in a file folder, signed page seventeen, and mailed the whole packet of indecipherable legalese back to New York. "This must be why writers get agents," I thought.

My book contains a collection of pieces, 80 percent of which were written by National Writing Project teacher-consultants. By calling for submissions from others, I'd allowed myself more time to procrastinate. It's a strategy I'll use again. But eventually, I had to get to work on the project. And work it was. For more months than the results may indicate, I spent weekends and evenings (and one Thanksgiving and one winter break) as a participant in the writing process; I composed, I revised, I took results to my monthly writing group of Redwood Writing Project teacher-consultants, and I revised again.

I found editing the writing of contributors to be the most surprising and valuable part of creating a book. Several people with plenty of publishing experience sent me contributions. I received stories from Joe Bruchac, Pam Munoz Ryan, and Donald Graves. "Just who the hell do I think I am?" I wondered, remembering childhood admonitions regarding the size of my britches. "I'm writing to Don Graves telling him that I think he should revise his piece. Surely I'll be smitten by the writing gods."

But Donald Graves and all the contributors to my book were receptive to editorial suggestions. Uniformly, they were appreciative of advice that improved their work. If I offered opinions they disputed, they would defend their positions or suggest alternatives. I learned that whether they are sixth grade students in peer response groups or nationally known icons, good writers really want to get better, and they know a great way to do that is to listen to an audience.


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