I bet you can name the author of the following passage:
A band that’s so good should have someone to hear it,
But it’s going so fast that it’s hard to keep near it.
I’ll put on a trailer! I know they won’t mind
If a man sits and listens while hitched on behind.
But now is it fair? Is it fair what I’ve done?
I’ll bet those wagons weigh more than a ton.
That’s really too heavy a load for one beast;
I’ll give him some helpers. He needs two, at least.
I shared this passage with my eighth graders after announcing that I expected them to name the author based on a short excerpt from a book. Initially they scoffed, claiming there was no way they would be able to do what I asked of them. I questioned whether they thought they could name the artist if they heard a new song by their favorite musician. Of course they claimed music would be much easier.
After showing them the passage, they realized it wasn’t as challenging as they had initially thought. Most students, like most of you, were able to name Dr. Seuss as the author. This is a passage from one of his earlier books, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
I chose this to launch an author study unit for a couple of reasons. One is that I knew the unit was going to be challenging for most students, and I wanted them to enter into it with a sense of confidence. Students need to experience success to build their academic self-esteem. It is not enough to just tell them we believe in them.
The other reason is that I wanted to demonstrate the purpose of studying an author’s work. I wanted them to see that by thinking across multiple texts and making connections, readers gain a greater knowledge of the author’s craft than they do by reading a single text. I also wanted them to see that it’s the natural work of a reader, not something constructed just for school assignments. By recognizing that most of them already have knowledge of a particular author, this work feels within their reach and relevant to who they are as readers.
From Dr. Suess to Scaffolded Choice
After the launch, the first phase of instruction involves all students reading short stories by each of the authors available for study. By reading a short story by each author, students not only become familiar with their options before making a final selection, but also get repeated practice doing the same kind of analysis they will do on their own with longer texts.
Each time we read a story by a new author, whether as a whole class, in small groups, or independently, our goal was to identify craft moves we noticed authors making. Students worked from a list of craft moves that included techniques such as flashback, foreshadowing, inner thinking, humor, symbolism, first-person narration, building mood, and dialogue. With each short story, students collaborated to identify three moves the author made.
For example, when reading “The Ingredients” by Jason Reynolds (in the anthology Black Enough), students noticed how realistic the dialogue among the friends is. They also noticed the way Reynolds uses humor. Finally, some students picked up on the way the ingredients from the title are symbolic.
In each case, after identifying craft moves, I either modeled or prompted students through the process of not only naming the craft move, but also determining what it revealed to readers. To help students through this process, we used a consistent checklist of options.
Each craft move revealed something about the following:
In the Reynolds story, students recognized that the realistic dialogue reveals that the story is set in the present. The language felt real and current to them. They also discussed how humor gives information about the relationship between the characters. Readers could tell the boys are close friends because the boys roast each other and continue as if nothing has happened.
Students who recognized the symbolism of the title connected it to the theme by explaining that the word ingredients refers not only to the construction of a perfect sandwich, but also to what makes up their perfect friendship. Although on the surface, it seemed to be a story about the quest for a perfect sandwich, it really turned out to be a story of friendship being enough for them.
By practicing this process with multiple short stories in a variety of ways, students gained the automaticity needed to repeat the process independently as they moved from the study of short stories to full-length novels. As they read their novels, students searched for examples of the three craft moves that had been identified in the short story by the same author. They followed up by examining what the examples revealed to readers. By the end of the unit, each student had read at least three texts by the author, including at least one short story and one novel.
By reading multiple texts, students were able to draw conclusions about the author’s style. In some cases, students began to notice that a different craft move was more prominent than one of the moves we had initially named while studying just the short story by the author. I encouraged students to take ownership and adjust their studies as appropriate.
Ownership to the degree that students modified the course of study was possible because of the way the unit started. Students entered the unit with a sense of confidence, and instruction was scaffolded to support them until they were ready to take learning into their own hands.
If you’d like to explore further, here is a list of texts we used in our unit of study of specific authors.
“So I Ain’t No Good Girl” from Who Am I Without Him? Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives by Sharon Flake
“Fat Man Walking” from You Don’t Even Know Me: Stories and Poems About Boys by Sharon Flake
“The Trophy” from Guys Read: The Sports Pages edited by Jon Scieszka
“A Reasonable Sum” from Connections: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults edited by Donald Gallo
“Running Out of Air” from Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge by David Lubar
“Kid Appeal” from Guys Read: Funny Business edited by Jon Scieszka
Walter Dean Myers
“Pirate” from Guys Read: Thriller edited by Jon Scieszka
“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” from Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh
Picture Book: Patrol
Fallen Angels (young adult)
“Under Berlin” from Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices edited by Mitali Perkins (in verse)
Susan Beth Pfeffer
“Ashes” from Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Authors edited by Judy Blume
Blood Wounds (young adult)
“The Ingredients” from Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi
“Eraser Tattoo” from Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles
Long Way Down (young adult)
All-American Boys (young adult)
The Boy in the Black Suit (young adult)
When I Was the Greatest (young adult)
Gary D. Schmidt
“When She Whined in Her Sleep” from Totally Middle School: Tales of Friends, Family, and Fitting In edited by Betsy Groban
“The Wild Prince” from Friends: Stories About New Friends, Old Friends, and Unexpectedly True Friends edited by Meg Cabot
“In Which Young Raina Learns a Lesson” from Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever. edited by Betsy Bird
“Main Street” (short story)
Locomotion (in verse)