Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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Take word choice, for example

Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times? 

It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:

However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.

Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of  “get.”

I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”

Here’s the student’s third and final draft:

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The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?

Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word. 

I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?

Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.

This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.


Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!

 

 

 

Read this Gary Provost gem to teach sentence variety

You’ll see light bulbs pop on across your classroom as you read it.

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Photo: Gisella Fotographie on Pixabay

Copy off the paragraph below from writing guru Gary Provost and read it aloud to your students at the beginning of class or as a mini-lesson. Don’t just read it aloud… make sure they follow along on their own copy. It’s more effective that way. You’ll see the light bulbs pop on across your room as you read it. That’s what happens when I read it to my students. I usually read it once in seventh-grade, and then we revisit it once or twice in eighth grade. It’s awesome.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals— sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

To get more writing advice to use in your class, order Provost’s book. 

As you read this aloud to your students, if your kids are like mine, you’ll see their eyes raise from the page and lock with yours in recognition of what Provost is cleverly doing: literally showing them sentence variety and how effective it is.

You may have to explain a few things (What’s a stuck record? What does it mean when something drones? What does monotonous mean?), but I can’t think of a faster, more effective way to explain the positives of sentence variety.

Then collect the paragraphs, and remind your kids to apply sentence variety to the writing project they happen to be working on for the day…. assuming they’re not first-drafting. For my own writing, sentence variety comes into play during revision. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen during a first draft, but not usually.


That’s all for today! Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this useful and leave a comment with your own approach to teaching sentence variety. This works for me, but I’d like to know what works for you.

Also, request my free “reflection assignment PDF” by clicking the “Send freebie!” menu at the top of the page. Make sure to write “reflection PDF” in the comment box so I know what to send.

 

 

It’s hard to teach middle schoolers this: grammar rules exist to bring readers on your journey

Part 4 of 4

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

 

In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.

Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination.  Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.

So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey?  I’ve tried my hand at  having small discussions that go something like this:

“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun  —  you distract your reader.  If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it?  At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”

“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”

Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:

“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”

“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”

“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”

So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.

 

 

 

Because bored students care about commas… and little else

Here’s what I do to spark passion in my students for writing

part 1 of 4

 

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

 

And let’s get this straight right from the start: I am no expert. I repeat, I am no expert. I have a meager six years of teaching under my belt. However, I am more excited than ever to be doing this job at age 51. (gulp) That’s why I want to reflect on and share what works for me in my classroom… and what doesn’t. I truly hope you’ll follow my blog and start a conversation so we can learn from each other. It’s good for teachers to do that. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Writing means knowing a bunch of rules, right? Comma rules. Spelling rules. Fragment rules. Capitalization rules. All these rules are very important to middle school students who are bored with writing. In fact, some students think writing is only about “the rules.” And the sooner they can get “the rules” right in their crummy, boring assignment, the sooner they can turn it in and move on with life.

Students are bored when they don’t care about their writing topic. Conversely, when students care about their topic, they don’t mind struggling to get it right.

Picture this: one of your students turns in a cleanly edited, yet incredibly boring and lifeless story. It’s another story about their dog, for example. Not one comma is out of place, not one word is misspelled. Everything looks great, but it’s just so… dull. That same day, another student turns in a poorly edited, yet thought-provoking and fresh essay. It’s a piece about self-image and social media. Yes, there was a run-on here, a capitalization error there, but you stumbled through it because the ideas were compelling and intriguing.

Besides subject matter, there’s one big difference between the dog story and social media essay. The essay can be revised, edited, and polished and still be engaging and original; however, the story, even though it needs no editing, will still require a major overhaul to garner interest from a reader. The commas are all there, but the ideas aren’t. In other words, just because the editing rules have been followed does not mean the writing is interesting.

So why did the student turn in the boring story? Because she didn’t care about it. She didn’t like the topic, the character she had created, who knows. However, the social media essay captured the heart of its author. This student had found a way to connect to the topic and, more importantly, discovered he had an opinion that needed and deserved to be expressed.

In order to get the freshest, most original, most thoroughly developed writing from my students, I must figure out ways to spark passion in my students for their writing topics. It’s my job to make them care about what they’re writing. It’s on me to send boredom out the door and down the hall.

Here are three  things I do in my 6-8 ELA classes to help my students find topics they’re passionate about:

  1. I give them lots of choices. Like gobs of choices.
    • I use this list of 401 argument topics from The New York Times. So many ideas! In fact, I often narrow the list down to fifty or so. Sometimes too many options are overwhelming. I also like to skim through the list to make sure the prompts I give my kids are age-appropriate since some of the prompts are for high school students and older.
    • I also use this lists like this one of 365 writing prompts from thinkwritten.com.
    • I keep digging to find more and more prompts. Here’s another site. Again, if too many options are just too many, provide fewer.
  2. I assign slice-of-life essays about the mundane, yet worthwhile, quiet moments of living. For ideas and plans from Two Writing Teachers, click here.
  3. Sometimes I simply give students time to think. Often, kids just aren’t used to sitting quietly and thinking. With smartphones and other devices, there’s always something else to do besides think. Let students stare at the wall and allow ideas to surface.

 

This is the first installment in a series of six on this blog about helping kids find writing topics that they’ll feel passionate about. And if they’re passionate, they won’t be bored; instead, they will care. As a result, they’ll spend enough time on their writing so it’s fleshed-out, fully developed, fresh, provocative, and true.

The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!