Focus Your Binoculars and Zoom In

Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

I created a mini-lesson that uses a technique from Barry Lane and a handout from TpT

Because it seems my high school students would benefit from learning some revision strategies, I decided to do a search on Teachers Pay Teachers for any revision handouts featuring the work of Barry Lane. I found this one (it’s FREE from Texas ELAR Coach) entitled Writing Strategy: Adding Detail by Zooming In with Barry Lane’s Binoculars. Lane’s technique of “focusing the binoculars” allows readers to see better, clearer pictures in our stories.

When you download the page, you’ll see that the page’s title is “Focusing the Binoculars.” However, I decided to write “Zooming In…” at the top of my handout since I’ve often seen these two terms used interchangeably in some of Lane’s materials. In addition, when I talk in class, I often use both terms. To avoid confusion, I wanted to make sure that both terms appeared on the page.

Find this handout at this TpT page: Texas ELAR Coach

The handout features this example of a fuzzy sentence: The lady looked kind of funny. In class, we talked about how that sentence doesn’t paint a clear picture. It’s a good example of vague language that accomplishes nothing. For example…

  • What does “kind of funny” look like?
  • Does funny mean humorous?
  • Does it mean weird?

Below the fuzzy sentence are two sentences that paint a vivid picture of the funny-looking lady. It gives a crystal clear description that provides a “mind movie” to the reader. We discussed how much more vivid the zoomed-in sentence is. We can picture the woman, her hat, her pale skin, her bobbing head, the way she looks like a black lid.

Mr. Lane’s handout makes an obvious point: when you imagine that you’re looking through binoculars at an object, person, or landscape—or anything, really— in your story, and then adjust those binoculars, and describe what you see, your readers will be able to visualize your writing so much more clearly. Writing we can see in our mind while we read creates memorable writing.

On the handout, there are four further examples of zooming in.  I decided to write each of these on an index card and then I made some more cards so kids could get with a partner, pick a card, and then zoom in.

I made these cards. Four of them feature fuzzy sentences from the handout and I created a few more so I would have enough for class.

Kids moved around the room to find partners and to write their sentences. I asked them to write their fuzzy sentence at the top of a sheet of notebook paper, and then add two to three more “zoomed in” sentences. After about five minutes of work, we went around the room and listened to each pair’s attempt at using their narrative binoculars.

This photo shows some of the “zooming in” my high school students tried last week. They wrote the fuzzy sentence first and then “zoomed in” for two to three more sentences.

Even though I had asked students to read their fuzzy sentences first, I also reminded them that if they “zoom in” well, the fuzzy sentence is unnecessary. This activity illustrates how the fuzzy sentence tells while the “zoomed in” sentences show

Following our share time, I wrapped up the mini-lesson by reminding students to use this technique in the computer lab (where we were going next) where they were to continue revising their memoirs.

Side note:  Because I thought my students might confuse ‘zooming in’ with “exploding a moment,” a technique we had explored a few days before,  I reminded them that writers “explode a moment” when they want to fully develop the most suspenseful, climactic part of their narratives.

On the other hand, writers can focus the binoculars and “zoom in” at anytime during a story.  “Zoomed in” detail makes the difference between vivid and dull writing. It’s especially useful for grounding dialogue… adding scene-setting imagery and details to conversations to develop characters or set a scene. Without this grounding, dialogue can feel like mere isolated lines of speech devoid of life.

After returning the conversation to zooming in, several students skimmed through their drafts looking for places where they could focus their binoculars and describe a person, object, or landscape more acutely.

IMG_1558 (1)

This activity lasted for about twenty minutes. It was just enough time to explore the concept sufficiently, yet also leave enough time for students to immediately practice it in the computer lab, which is where we spent the remainder of the class period.

Since I had requested that their next draft be 750 words,  most students recognized the lesson’s usefulness in helping them to increase their word count.

I felt this lesson resonated with my students. There was real purpose in it and they were able to immediately implement it.

Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to click like and leave a comment or question. And if you have any ideas to share, please do! If you’d rather contact me directly by email, please contact me at Have a great week! 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to author Barry Lane and Texas ELAR Coach at Teachers Pay Teachers for the use of their fantastic materials.



Slice-of-life writing: the anti-Instagram narrative

These short narratives celebrate the ordinary and challenge high schoolers to write creatively


One result of a three-month summer break? Students out of practice with writing, especially creative writing.

To remedy that last week, I decided to introduce my high school students to slice-of-life writing, a fairly new genre within the world of narrative non-fiction. In my former middle school ELA teaching position, slice-of-life writing was a staple with my students. They enjoyed writing slices more and more as they became familiar with the form.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice-of-Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

One way to think of slice-of-life writing is to consider it an acknowledgement of the moments we wouldn’t post in an Instagram feed. Usually, we put the major moments of our lives in our feeds… memorable vacations, weddings, graduations, fun outings. With slice-of-life writing, however, we write about the more ordinary moments of our lives. These have merit, too, and perhaps as much merit as the milestones in our lives simply because the small moments are more numerous.

After a brief introduction of the genre to my high schoolers, I went over the points on the PowerPoint slide (shown below).


After talking through the above Powerpoint slide, I passed out copies of a sheet with mentor slice-of-life essays. I read aloud these three from the sheet: Drip Drop by Annison E., Feeding the Dogs by Isaiah F., and Cutting the Grass by yours truly.

The first two were written by former students, and were published by Creative Communications of Logan, Utah in one of the publisher’s essay anthologies. (While the company continues to publish poetry anthologies for middle schoolers, they no longer publish the essay anthologies. Darn!)  Here’s that mentor text handout:



After reading and discussing the mentor texts, I asked students to spend thirty minutes working on a first draft, after which we would do some revision. As for length, I asked students to fill the front side of a sheet of notebook paper plus a few lines on the back.

In some of my classes, it was evident that some additional guidance was needed. Some students seemed to be confused by what exactly constituted a “slice.” During my first hour class, I wrote alongside them, scribbling out a first draft about cleaning the windshield of my car, which I had done the night before. I read it aloud, stumbling through my quickly written cursive. I told students I was not totally satisfied with it (especially the  powdered sugar reference), but it was a start. Here’s my quick “demo” first draft of my own slice:

“Shhhhhhhhh.” The foamy spray fizzes onto my car’s windshield like a thin layer of powdered sugar. A sweet chemical odor lifts from the foam.

The foam sludges down the glass like a glacier, shifting and sliding slowly down toward the wiper blade, a guardrail of sorts.

The stains of unlucky insects that fluttered their wing one final time against the glass melt into the white of the foam cleaner. Moths, wasps, and horseflies decompose and disintegrate into the liquid… a tiny life lost and wiped away.

I rip off a handful of paper towels  and wipe the glass. Clean straight swaths absorb and remove the foam, the bugs, the film of road grease and oil.

The window is wide and requires that I stretch to reach the entire glass. So I walk around to the other side to clean the remaining half.  I trip on a cord from the leaf blower left on the floor. I untangle my ankle from the cord and finish cleaning the windshield.

The glass is clear. One crusty patch remains and I spray it one more time. The crust dissolves and I smudge out the remaining residue.

The paper towels, damp and dripping, feel cold in my hand. The job is done.

Following my read aloud of my demo slice, they started or continued on their own. After about thirty minutes, I asked students still working to finish the sentence they were writing, so we could add to our first drafts.

Adding to our writing is one way we revise, I said.

“Let’s add to our first drafts with sensory language,” I said. “Skim through your draft and look for  a place to add a sound,” I suggested. Students worked for about five minutes to add a sound.

Of course, without fail, in each class, one student would ask, “What if you already have a sound?”

“See if you can add another,” I prompted.

Following sounds, we then added fragrances/odors (smell), textures (touch), and if appropriate, a flavor (taste) to our drafts. Obviously, if students were “showing and not telling,” their writing should have already have contained an image.

After our revision, I asked for volunteers to share their slices. A few students agreed to do just that. My first impression from their writing: I hadn’t sufficiently stressed the importance of focusing on a single moment in their slices. When a few students shared their entire morning routine (First, I get up and then I take a shower, and then I grab some breakfast, feed the dog, brush my teeth, wait for the bus, and then it comes and I go to school.), or evening football practice, I knew I needed to emphasize that slice-of-life writing is all about focusing on a single small moment in life, an ordinary moment that one would never think to include in their Instagram feed, for example.

I had conveyed this idea earlier in the lesson by recalling last week’s reading of excerpts from Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, where Roorbach discusses memory. He mentions “informational memory,” which he calls the “stuff of lost days.”

Slice-of-life writing  builds on  and celebrates the “stuff of lost days” people are engaged in on a daily basis.

Yes, our lives are punctuated with big life events, but our lives are also lived in the not-so-big events, the events that are easily forgotten or downplayed, but actually form the bulk of our existence.  Slice-of-life writing capitalizes on these easily dismissed activities.


Because a handful of students (in one particular class, curiously) wrote what I call “And then I did this, and then I did this” essays, I tweaked my Powerpoint slide to place more emphasis on focusing on a single moment or task. The final version of that slide is the one I’ve included in this post above.

However, I still need to add these points, which should help them write “in the moment” better next time:

  • Write in the first-person point-of-view to put the reader right there with you.
  • Write in the present tense to add immediacy to your slice.

The next day in class, students typed up their slices in the computer lab. I told them that if their slice was a series of events or moments, that they could go ahead and use it for this first slice, since I felt my instructions hadn’t been clear enough at first. Next month, however, when we try another one, they will need to get choosy with their writing and focus on a single moment.

Right before they began typing, I asked students to create a Google Doc and name it Slice- of-Life Essays so we could add a slice monthly for the next few months. We’ll plan to publish a small collection of slices at the end of the semester or at the end of the year. Having a collection of essays about their everyday and ordinary teenage life should be a treasure as they continue through high school and beyond.

After typing, I asked students to print two copies and read their copy aloud to a partner who would follow along on their own copy so they could  offer feedback for more revision. I specifically asked students to look for:

  1. First: unclear and/or confusing areas
  2. Second: editing, such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling

I added, “When you turn in your final draft, also hand me your first draft copies so I can see the feedback your partner gave you.”

Unfortunately, most kids brought me their final drafts with a first draft that contained minimal feedback provided by their partner. Many simply had misspelled words circled or commas added here and there. “That’s not revision. That’s editing,” I thought, making a mental note that my new students would need extra encouragement to revise.

And that’s where we are in my new high school classes. I am figuring out that they need to learn some revision strategies. This week, I plan to cover “exploding a moment” and “writing small,” two similar yet separate strategies that should help students flesh out their writing into fuller, more meaningful compositions. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading again this week. It’s interesting to make the transition from middle school to high school. Older students definitely have different motivations and goals. Learning ways to make writing (and revising) more relevant is definitely my charge.





My attempt at teaching kids how to add narration into their dialogue

Here’s a mini-lesson I created a few months ago

Photo: Unsplash

Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated.

This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments, I would occasionally ask students to start their responses with dialogue. I did this to encourage (or force, I guess, since it was required in the assignment) students to add narrative elements to their writing. Sure, it’s easy to just respond to a prompt with “The central idea of this article was…”. However, another level of complexity is added if one must start with dialogue. When one adds dialogue to the standard response, a story is automatically brought into the mix.

Once the students became accustomed to using dialogue in their responses (in effect, they’re blending genres, aren’t they?!), I noticed that the dialogue lacked narration… the additional information writers build into their dialogue to show setting, personality traits, reveal motivation, or other important details.

To show students what I was talking about when I asked them to add narration to their dialogue, I took two excerpts from two novels from my bookshelves, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. For each novel, I found a short excerpt and typed it verbatim into a Word document as published. Then I took those same excerpts and removed the narration. Here’s a photo of the handout I made for this activity:

The handout above (sorry about the quality of the picture, by the way), contains excerpts from the two novels. I chose dialogue that possessed descriptive narration. 

Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:

IMG_8540 (1)
This back side of the handout shows the two excerpts with the narration removed.

I read aloud each passage from the novels, starting with the excerpt WITHOUT narration, and then followed with reading the respective excerpt WITH the narration. Then I asked:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do we learn when we have the narration added to the dialogue?
  • What did the reader miss out on by not having the extra information that the narration provides?
  • What else does the narration accomplish?

We basically just discuss the narration’s effect on the text. It’s a good way for kids to readily experience the benefits of narration and how it can help their dialogue work harder for them.

At the beginning of class, I put the following quote on the Smartboard from to prep them for our mini-lesson. Here’s that quote, which they copy into cursive on a sheet of paper and then turn in for points.

Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space…Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.—Helga Schier, PhD., Writer’s Digest

Here’s how I would change this mini-lesson for next time:

The handout needs to have one novel’s excerpts on each side. As we went over the handout, the kids were flipping the paper back and forth from the excerpt without narration and then to the one with narration on the back. It would have been more effective to have the “without narration” excerpt for one of the novels on the top half of the page followed by the “with narration” excerpt below it. Seeing the before and after versions would have helped students more easily see the difference the narration makes.

I felt like the kids understood more about narration after this mini-lesson, but it’s a topic that definitely needs another go-over because I didn’t see many practice it in their assignments. No doubt this skill should be worked on with some in-class writing assignments so kids can apply it when I’m around to help or offer support.

A few kids (the stronger writers) did add some narration, but even some of those merely added lazy adjectives or adverbs to their dialogue, a la the following example:

“No, I don’t think you understand,” Mom stated urgently.

Not quite what I had in mind!

So obviously, narration in dialogue is a work in progress and like everything else that I teach, it takes repetition and practice.

Thanks for reading again this week!  Have a great June… what I call the Saturday night of the summer for teachers! Let me know your thoughts on this post and follow my blog for more middle and high school ELA teaching stories.

The Graphic Essay: A fresh way to discuss theme with evidence, commentary, and a dash of symbolism

IMG_8457 (1)

I will definitely try this project again. I see potential.

This spring, I assigned  a graphic essay to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative.  I felt the graphic essay would:

  1. offer a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found this idea on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass  to be included in their human rights dissertations.  So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.

When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project.  I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.

To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?) Here is a photo of the assignment sheet I made:


In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.

They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.

Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify  the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper. They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).

We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.

I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected. Here are pictures of those mentor texts:

Graphic essays created for Walden Pond by students at North Atlanta High School. See Living in the Layers for more.

Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.

How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay”Top 6″ status .

Here are more graphic essays made by my students:

IMG_8458 (1)
As you can see, some essays were more involved than others. One contained flaps that were to be lifted to reveal the commentary below, while another contained a safe with a door that opened as its symbol. One that was artistically well-executed didn’t contain textual evidence; students didn’t award it “Top 6” status.

I’ll try this project again next year at my new high school position. I really like how it capitalizes on students’ learning differences and artistic talent to discuss and argue theme and symbolism.  Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration

Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Drop me a comment and share your experience. See you next week!

My Attempt at a STEM-Themed Activity: Exploring Coffee Lids

This project was a long time in the making… brewing, I mean


A student writing about her coffee lid, which you can see in the paper bag.


This week, I’m posting several photos from a lesson and activity that’s been in the works for a few months, if not for a year. About a year ago, I found an article online on MentalFloss called “9 Facts about Coffee Lids You Didn’t Know You Needed.” The article featured a new book called Coffee Lids by architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht. The book is a showcase and discussion on the design and evolution of the coffee cup lid. The book includes photographs of more than 150 coffee cup lids and includes commentary on the history of this ubiquitous example of how “form follows function” even in the most mundane of objects.


Last year, I created an AOW (Article of the Week) assignment based on the “9 Facts” article to introduce the coffee cup lid from a engineering and design standpoint.

It never worked out to assign the AOW last year, but I kept it in mind for this year and finally, with only two weeks to go until school’s out, I finally assigned the AOW assignment plus an additional activity where students could hone their descriptive writing skills.

The first requirement for this project was to collect as many different styles of coffee lids as I could find. I ended up with about 28 different styles. (Most of them were included in the book, by the way.) A handful of students and parents contributed some of the lids. I collected the rest from coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations, and from friends. I started collecting in January and by mid-April, I had enough to do the activity.

I collected about 28 different styles of coffee cup lids.

About two weeks ago, 8th-graders read and responded to the AOW. This assignment basically formed the introduction to the activity that they completed last week. That activity? To write a descriptive paragraph(s) about one of the lids, which would be written so descriptively that a reader could match the text to the lid without either being labeled.

I took my two classes of my 8th-graders to the gym and to the safe room to write their descriptions last Thursday. They spent about half of the 50-minute class period handwriting their descriptions on notebook paper, and then the other half back in my classroom typing up their descriptions and printing them out.

Leaving my classroom to write their descriptions was beneficial because the gym and safe room are big enough that kids could space out and open their brown bag that contained their coffee lid. (The gym actually worked best, since kids could REALLY space out from each other.) The lid had a sticker on the bottom that students would use to match up to the cup’s descriptive paragraph.

Students read the descriptive paragraphs and then attempt to find the lid described. The lids were set out on some desks just out of view to the right in the photo above. There were too many lids for them to match up, so next time I’ll have each section match up their respective descriptions and lids.

Overall, the activity didn’t work as well as I hoped it would. On Friday, when kids matched up the lids to the descriptions, there was just too much matching to be done. The descriptions were simply not detailed or precise enough so the lid descriptions could be distinguished from each other. As a result, students gave up after matching up about six lids to their descriptions. Maybe next time, I should create a sheet that they fill out instead of having them write lid numbers on Post-It notes attached to each description.

I numbered each lid and then put it in a paper bag before passing out one to each student. They wrote their paragraphs and titled them with “Lid 7”, for example.

Oh, well. At least I have two ways to improve this activity for next time: 1) provide more detailed descriptions by requiring students to add precise measurements to their descriptions, and 2) have students match up fewer lids to their descriptions. I have 24 total eighth-graders and it was just too difficult and time-consuming to match up all 24 lids to their descriptions.  Next time, I’ll have each class of twelve match up only their lids.

Here’s a photo of the AOW that was assigned first:

This is page 1 of the 4-page handout.
This is page 3 of the 4-page handout.

Here’s the handout I created for the descriptive paragraph activity:

This was my first attempt at an assignment sheet for the activity. The sheet includes instructions plus an example that I wrote at the bottom. I decided that students didn’t need to use the MLA formatting in the upper-left corner.

I definitely liked this activity for its STEM focus. It encouraged my students to think more deeply about the design and engineering of a common object that they’ve never given serious consideration to. Concepts such as froth accommodation, olfactory satisfaction, and slosh reduction, which were first introduced in the AOW, revealed to them how much design and innovation goes into throw-away items, while also providing some unusual domain-specific Tier 3 words to talk about!

It was fun to see them studying closely all the different kinds of coffee lids, really noticing the minuscule details of each and then transferring those details into their writing. For this first attempt at this project, maybe that’s enough.

Getting out of the classroom, especially during spring testing, was beneficial on its own. Here, one student studies her lid while it’s in the bag, so no one else can see it.


Thanks for reading! I wrote this post quickly. If something is confusing, please let me know. Also… I realize some of the photos didn’t transfer well. Please let me know if you have questions and I’ll be happy to help. Also, feel free to comment with your thoughts or ideas on this activity. I like to try to incorporate STEM topics into Language Arts. What have been your experiences with STEM activities?



Instantly elevate your students’ writing: teach them to write cumulative sentences

Thanks to the National Writing Project’s Sherry Swain, I had a great lesson to use as a resource

IMG_8629 (1)
Above are two examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during this lesson. I provided three sentence starters from which students could choose. That part of the lesson is explained below.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a workshop I had attended at the Write to Learn Conference in late February at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. I had attended Sherry Swain‘s workshop on teaching kids to write the cumulative sentence. Since I wrote that post, I have worked with my students to help them learn how to write this literary-quality sentence structure.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
  2. I asked them to think of someone they knew well that they could write a good description of because we were going to write a cumulative sentence.
  3. At this point, someone usually asked, “What’s a cumulative sentence?” To this, I answered, “It’s a sentence that accumulates details about a person or whatever we’re writing about.” It seemed they could usually associate the word “accumulate” with “cumulative” and then we were good to go. There’s no need to get more technical than that.
  4. I wrote a sentence starter on the whiteboard, which would form the basis for my own cumulative sentence. I wrote “I thought of Aaron,” on the board. I pointed out that their sentence starter, “which is actually a complete sentence—and is otherwise known as an independent clause, right?”—needed to end with a comma since our sentence was just getting started.
  5. Then I told them we were going to watch a short video of my niece’s husband—the Aaron in my sentence starter—so we could describe him well.
  6. I showed a minute-and-a-half video on YouTube of Aaron doing his athletic-yoga-movement exercises. Here’s a link: Local athletic trainer develops naturaletics workout by Kansas City Star
  7. After watching the video (which really impressed the kids, by the way), I added a verb cluster that began with a participial verb (an -ing verb). I added this to my sentence: “extending his legs,”
  8. Then I asked the kids to write a similar phrase that began with an -ing verb. I reminded them to end the phrase with a comma.
  9. Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
  10. The kids added another descriptive phrase to their sentence. I again reminded them to start it with an -ing verb and end with a comma.
  11. Finally, we added one more. I added “shifting his weight gracefully throughout his routine.” Notice that I ended this final verb cluster with a period since the sentence was now completed. The kids did the same.
  12. We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
  13. I encouraged them to try this sentence structure in their writing that day. Seventh-graders were starting a final month of Writer’s Workshop and were able to work on any number of writing projects, including memoirs and narratives. I made sure to stress to them that cumulative sentences would instantly elevate the quality of their writing because it would help them vary the length of their sentences.
  14. In fact, I said, the average 7th-grader’s sentence contains ten words. (This statistic was included in Swain’s materials I received at the workshop.)
  15. Then I asked them, just for fun, to count the words in their sentences. Everyone had more than ten. Several had more than twenty words. One had 28!
I showed this video so kids could see who I was describing as I wrote my own cumulative sentence. I wanted to encourage them to use strong, descriptive verbs such as “extending,” “sprawling” and “shifting.”

The next day I put three sentence starters on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one and write a cumulative sentence just like we did the day before. These were the sentence starters I wrote on the board:

  • I watched the baby sloth,
  • The firefighter worked courageously,
  • The photographer roamed the crowd,
IMG_8630 (1)
Here are more examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during my second mini-lesson. Students were given three sentence starters from which to choose.

Here are two questions that I received from various students throughout the day (I taught this same mini-lesson to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders; all grades did well with it):

Question 1: Do we always have to start the verb clusters with -ing verbs?

My answer: No, you don’t, but for today, let’s do, since we’re learning something new.

Question 2: Can we use “and” in between the verb clusters?

My answer: Yes, you can, but try it without and see if you like the way it sounds. I like to make sure that kids realize writing is also about rhythm and sound and that writers make their own creative choices. A few kids added “and” to their sentences and then took them back out. Some kids explained that using “and” made the sentences sound more like a list, causing the sentences to sound less “in the moment” and more formal. I agreed and was impressed that kids picked up on the nuance of the cumulative sentence.

IMG_8636 (1)
Students could use the sentence starters I provided or not. The student who wrote the top example in this photo wanted to write about her sister.

Tomorrow, I’ve got a short mini-lesson planned for when kids enter the room. On the Smartboard, I’ll have a Powerpoint slide that has a cumulative sentence that uses absolute phrases in the description. Here’s a screenshot of the slide I’ll use:

I know it’s a sad sentence, but I also know it will get their attention! I actually tried this part of the lesson today in class. It was definitely more difficult for them to grasp until I helped them write it one verb cluster at a time. I thought they would need less help, but I was wrong.

The sentence in the photo above generated some interesting conversations with my 8th-graders. We noticed that when -ing verb clusters are used instead of absolute phrases, the reader can actually see (as in a “mind movie”) the action in the descriptors. The sentence is much more visual.

In contrast, when absolute phrases are used, that may not always be the case. Students preferred using -ing verb clusters for the imagery they provided to the sentence. Our preferences also veered toward using a mix of absolutes and -ing verb clusters. While a string of absolutes may feature repetition, the writer may not provide the “mind movie” effect as strongly.

And mind you, these discussions were short and not as technical as it might sound. We are starting end-of-year testing tomorrow, and the kids were definitely NOT in the mood for this, but since I’ve never formally taught the cumulative sentence before, it ended up being a good day to experiment with words and phrases. Just talking about how words and sentences sound always leaves the impression that “This is what writers do,”… i.e. they experiment, try styles on for size, and otherwise get creative with their writing. As I always say, “It’s language arts, not language science.”

One last note about the day: I did some quick online research (as in “I googled it”) on the cumulative sentence to make sure I was understanding the various forms it can take. In doing so, I learned about periodic sentences. Periodic sentences have their independent clauses (the sentence portion or the independent chunk) at the end, similar to a period. I think I’ll introduce this to my students next. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading! Grammar has always been my weakness when it comes to teaching ELA; however, I do like Sherry Swain’s way of teaching the cumulative sentence. It seems to be a practical thing for students to know. Follow my blog for more articles.

My students confuse the words “although” and “however” and I’m not sure why

So, as a teacher, how do I figure this one out?

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern in my students’ writing. The pattern I’m noticing may reveal some confusion that my students have regarding  the words “although” and “however.” It seems that some students will use “although” correctly in a guided writing prompt, but then in other situations, often in the same essay, use it again incorrectly when they should instead use the word “however.”

Grammatically speaking, they’ll use “although” correctly as a subordinate conjunction, but then also use it incorrectly in place of the conjunctive adverb, “however.” They’ll use “although” when “however” actually would be the appropriate choice.

In effect, students are interchanging these words Perhaps they don’t realize these words have different meanings in sentences.

I’ve been aware of this issue for a while now, but only recently have I also observed that most of my students don’t naturally use the word “however.” In fact, it’s almost as if the word “however” doesn’t exist in their writing vocabularies. (It’s hard to see your students not do something or not use a word, y’know?!)

Here are some examples of how my students correctly and incorrectly recently used the word “although.” These are paragraphs written in response to the question, “What is the theme of The Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor?”

Jordan’s sentence that begins with “Although…” shows that he is mastering complex sentences.

As part of the assignment for this response, I asked my students to start one sentence of their eight sentences in the response with the word “Although.” I add requirements like this one to prompts to encourage students to write richer, fuller complex sentences.

Stephanie’s sentence above should actually begin with “However, …” It seems she is using the words interchangeably. 

This is an example from “Stephanie” that shows some word usage confusion. “However,” would be the correct choice here instead of “Although,” since the independent clause as written (“he did not need to die that day.”) is not complex. Getting her to use “however” will be the trick, since it seems to be a word she rarely uses. It is interesting to note that Stephanie has inserted a comma after “Although,” which is exactly where the comma would be needed had she used “However.”

So what do I do with this “Although” vs. “However” observation? How do I solve this problem my students are having?

  • Should I collect a small group of student writing that includes both correct and incorrect usage? (This will take time and organization, but it seems kids respond better to class discussions when we are looking at their own or a classmate’s work.)
  • Should I have kids compare the two constructions and discuss how effective (or ineffective) it is to use Stephanie’s construction?
  • Should I discuss the logic of both constructions? It would be good to have students see for themselves how Stephanie’s construction is inaccurate, a little confusing, and therefore an unclear use of the word “although.”
  • Do I need to break down the sentences students write and swap out the two words to show students how they differ in meaning?
  • Do I need to discuss subordinate conjunctions (such as “although”) again?
  • Do I need to discuss conjunctive adverbs (such as “however”)? Surely, that’s not necessary in seventh grade!

There are just so many directions I could go with this, aren’t there?!

Usually, I conference one-on-one with the students to discuss issues like these. I also jot  notes on drafts to this effect where I cross out the incorrect use of  “Although,” and then try to explain somehow in the margins that “However” would be the best choice. However, now that I am starting to see this as a trend among my students, perhaps I should approach it with a whole-class mini-lesson.

And I think the whole-class approach will happen eventually. However, before it does, I’ll need to start collecting examples that show “although” and “however” being used correctly and incorrectly. Some of these examples will come from student writing, and articles and books from my own reading. Once I have those examples, I could create a handout or  Powerpoint or some other visual to teach the difference between these two words.

Thanks for reading about the thought process that goes into teaching. Another thing I think about: ways to be more hands-on or interactive when I teach. Could I go beyond creating a paper handout or a Powerpoint to teach the differences between “although” and “however?” Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.