Our Exclusive Interview with Sean:
1. What motivated you to write The Narrative Writing Toolkit?
I wanted to provide teachers with a resource that helps them teach narrative writing in today’s world of standards reform. A lot of people think that narrative writing is de-emphasized in the Common Core Standards, but the truth is that narrative writing remains an important component of the writing curriculum in the Common Core era. The difference, though, is that now teachers need to understand what narrative writing strategies the CCSS and other revised standards value and the most effective ways to teach those strategies. That’s where this book comes in—to help teachers identify these strategies and teach them as well as possible!
2. With all the pressure to teach informational writing these days, why is it important that we still make time to teach narrative too?
There are so many benefits associated with narrative writing! It’s rigorous, versatile, and relevant.
Rigorous: Sometimes, people think that narrative writing isn’t as academically challenging as informational and argumentative writing, but experts on the topic strongly disagree with that, citing the complex linguistic choices strong narrative writing entails and the many ways it can be used in the classroom.
Versatile: I love how multi-faceted narrative is. It can be used for a variety of purposes (such as to entertain, inform, or persuade), it can be applied to a range of subjects such as science and history/social studies, and it often utilizes complex writing strategies such as the uses of dialogue and interior monologue to help readers make inferences about characters’ personalities
Relevant: Narrative writing is not only a great way for students to write about high-interest topics, but also lends itself really nicely to the use of 21st century literacies. Many teachers today are using digital tools to help their students to plan and share narratives and are helping their students use relevant multimedia to provide additional information that may not be able to be conveyed solely through the written word
3. What is your favorite piece of advice or strategy in the book?
My favorite advice in the book is the information about new literacy connections. In many of the book’s chapters, I include text boxes titled “New Literacy Connection”; these sections identify specific ways students can make connections to technology and multimedia while crafting their narratives. They address topics such as using multimedia to complement written descriptions of characters and to capture thematic ideas.
4. How is your book different from other books on teaching narrative writing?
This book makes a unique contribution to the body of literature on narrative writing because of its connection to the Common Core Writing Standards and the information it provides about new literacies and multimedia. These components make this book especially current and unique, providing readers with information and ideas that they can’t get elsewhere.
5. You have four other books in your toolkit series (books on argument writing, informational writing, and grammar instruction). What is your toolkit approach and what do you want readers to take away from your series?
The toolkit approach is a way to help students think strategically and metacognitively about writing strategies. The central idea behind it is that all writing strategies are “tools” that authors use to make their works as effective as possible.
A key component of the toolkit approach is that writers use particular strategies purposefully and with specific objectives in mind. Just as you wouldn’t use a hammer when a screwdriver is needed, you wouldn’t use the writing tool of using transitional language when your goal is to craft a strong lead.
One of the great benefits of the toolkit approach is that it can move students away from the “I’m not a writer” mindset. I’ve noticed that some students think of being a writer or not being a writer as a binary—you’re either one or the other, some of them think, and you can’t change that. In reality, that’s completely untrue: all students can become writers by learning the strategies, or tools, that other successful writers incorporate into their works.
6. What are some misconceptions about using mentor texts in the classroom?
I believe the main misconception about mentor text use is that there are only a few writing strategies we can use mentor texts to teach. I think this is because mentor texts are most frequently used to teach a select few strategies, like creating strong leads or using sensory details. Those are certainly wonderful strategies, but it’s also important to understand that mentor texts have many more possible uses. You can use mentor texts to teach your students anything at all that successful writers do in their works. If you want to help your students write strong conclusions, you can show them published examples of effective conclusions, talk with them about why those conclusions are strong, and work with them as they apply to their own works the strategies that the published authors use. I sometime compare the many possibilities of mentor texts to the advertisement where the announcer says, “There’s an app for that,” indicating the many ways one can use a smartphone. Similarly, if you want to teach your students a writing strategy, “There’s a mentor text for that.”
7. When you do PD for teachers on writing instruction, what question do you get asked the most?
I’m most frequently asked questions about assessment; there’s a lot of anxiety out there about how to best assess students’ writing, such as what kinds of rubrics to use, how much rubrics should vary from one assignment to the next, and how specific those rubrics should be.
I have three core principles of writing assessment:
First, writing assessment should be attribute focused, with specific evaluation criteria for each attribute. This belief relates to the idea of thinking of writing strategies as specific tools students can use to enhance their works. It’s most effective to assess students’ on their uses of each of the tools they’ve learned so that you can accurately evaluate how well they’re using each one in their works.
Second, writing assessment should be based on the instruction students have received. Once we’ve presented strategies to our students, shown them examples, and helped them apply those ideas to their works, it’s then fair to evaluate them on their uses of those strategies.
Third, assessment should inform future instruction. Once we assess our students on writing tools we’ve taught them, we can then use their performances on these assessments to determine which tools to target in future lessons and activities.
8. What or who inspired you to become an educator?
It’s always been my passion. There have been many events that have contributed to this interest—my mom being my third grade teacher was a major one—but there wasn’t one specific thing that led to me to this career. I’ve had so many great teachers at all levels of my educational career and I’m thankful for each one of them.
9. What has been one of the proudest moments of your education career so far?
After my first book with Routledge Eye on Education, The Common Core Grammar Toolkit for Grades 3-5, came out, I received so many wonderful emails and tweets from teachers all over the country I’d never met telling me that they really enjoyed and appreciated the book and that it changed the way they teach grammar. I was so proud and excited to know that my ideas were being applied in classrooms across the country!
10. And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about education in one word.