A lead shouldn’t ask a question, but raise one instead
I discovered this awesome lead sentence in the July 8-21 issue of New York magazine. The article, “The Battle of Grace Church,” is written by Jessica Pressler, who opens her story with this doozy of a lead sentence.
This sentence shows precisely how engaging a lead can be when it begs a question from the reader.
Here’s the sentence: “When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate.” This sentence begs the reader to ask…
If I’m not purchasing real estate, then exactly what am I buying?
Notice the writer did not ask a question; rather, she raised one… within the mind of the reader, that is. That’s an important distinction.
The “Ask a question” lead is a tired trope. After all, people are reading to get answers, not questions.
However, a lead that raises a question is a different matter entirely. And Pressler’s writing reveals this technique.
But how exactly does one raise a question?
First, I would suggest having students emulate the structure of Pressler’s sentence. Have students write a complex sentence that starts with When you…. Of course, you may need to show them how to finish that dependent clause, and then follow it with a comma and an independent clause.
Showing this sentence to my students, discussing what we notice about it, and then imitating it will make for a quick and effective mini-lesson prior to writer’s studio time in my high school English classes.
The key take-away for my students:
Don’t ask a question in your lead… raise one instead.
Helping students find the best way to open an essay–whether it’s an argument, an informative, or even a narrative–is hard. When I see something in print out there in the real world that may help provide you a mentor text for a mini-lesson, I’ll be posting it.
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:
First: unclear and/or confusing areas
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 in 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.
I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.
While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.
This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.
Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:
The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
quote only relevant passages
frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
blend the author’s points with the writer’s
Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:
“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”
use the provided templates for entertaining objections
Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
use the templates for informally introducing objections
Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students. Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing their essays.
Another bonus:They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.
Check out Amazon.com and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).
Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.
Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing. Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.
This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall
A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here. I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost. Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career. In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.
I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.
The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:
Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)
While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,
When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.
How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence that you must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.
I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.
In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”
The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.
Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.
Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.
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Read this past article for information about the contest, guidelines, standards addressed, extra bonus, prizes, deadlines, and anything else I could think of that would be helpful to you.
Without any preview, other than the 2018 prompt, I’ve included below the 1000-word essay written by one of my seventh-grade students, Sara C. This essay was awarded first place among about forty entries submitted to our local county chapter. From there, it progressed to the state level, and placed first among all seventh-grade entries.
Here’s the prompt from the 2018 contest: The end of World War I was the beginning of a new age. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. Imagine you are living in 1918. State where you are living and how the end of the war will impact your daily life. Discuss the pros and cons of the changes this War introduced to society and how you imagine those changes will impact the United States in the years to come.
And here’s the essay that won “Best in the State of Missouri” by a seventh-grader:
World War I: Remembering the War to End All Wars
We’re in the midst of the Great War. Women have assumed the jobs men had to abandon to fight with Allies. Ma and I work in the factory making uniforms for men at war. I want to take control for more than just work. I want to vote and be involved in the politics, the decisions, and the future of our country.
My little brother, Henry, is fighting in the war. He is stationed in the fields of Flanders in Belgium. Little Henry… He should be here, but he’s a man. After he saw all the propaganda posters he decided he needed to help. He enlisted in the United States Army.
These posters were all over town, saying things like, “There is still a place in line for you. Will you fit in?” Or “Will you fight now or wait for this?” Then there was an image of destruction.
Ma and I were at a loss of words when told of his enlistment. It was hard on us. Now I don’t know if he’s safe. I may only hope for him to be okay. Not to starve, suffer a bullet wound, or get raided. I only have hope.
Some of the other women have been getting angry. They want rights, as I do. Most only want equal pay. We get paid less for the same jobs, you see, and it isn’t fair. I’ve tried to explain the amount of our pay isn’t as important as the way we are treated, but few listen to me. They don’t want to face the truth in other’s eyes, women are just for taking care of children. We are lesser in our brains, or so men think.
While I was walking home today I saw my friend Mildred. She was once so beautiful and lively. Now she’s very tired and her skin is stained yellow, she has become a canary after working in the munitions factory.
“It’s just awful!” Mildred exclaimed. “Remember Ruth? The little redhead?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, she dropped dead today. Out of the blue too,” she explained shaking her head.
“What of?” I asked. “Was the toxins of the munition, or the Spanish Influenza?” Both have caused many deaths.
The flu was worst. It filled the lungs with fluids so people drowned. Sometimes it turned skin blue, too. It was a terrible thing for someone as small and fragile as a child or a large-built man to die of something beyond their control.
“We don’t know yet. They say it was most likely from the flu. I think they’re trying to cover up,” she confides. “I believe it was the toxin we are exposed to. It’s not healthy.” Her face turns red with anger.
In the field next to us kids are singing, skipping rope, and laughing. We heard them loudly chanting, “I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window and in-flu-enza!” A woman scolds the kids as a group before grabbing a young girl by the wrist and pulling her inside their small house.
“Mildred? I think I want to go to war,” I said.
She looked ahead then laughed, tossing her head back. “Girls can’t be soldiers!” she wailed. “You’re too funny, Ruby. Way to lighten the mood!” she laughed again.
“No, I’m serious. I may not be a soldier but I can go fix the soldiers up. They always need nurses,” I reasoned. “We could go help.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mildred bursted. “What would your Ma do without you?” she exclaimed. “She’s already worried sick about Henry.” She looked at me waiting for an answer.
“I suppose you’re right,” I sighed. “Someone needs to take care of Ma. And besides,” I said, “I can’t very well fight for women’s rights on the battlefield.” Mildred rolled her eyes, said goodnight and entered her small house.
I walk home and say hello to Ma.
“Please don’t go today,” she begs as I step through the door. “The other girls can handle it,” she says.
“Ma, please. Come with me,” I say. I grab my jacket and bag.
“No, no. I will not go,” she says crossing her arms. “When I was a girl of your age I was married and happy. Why in the world would you want to go and change things? You want to work? No thank you, I’ll be sitting right here when you get back,” she says sternly.
“Okay, suit yourself,” I say. “But I’m going to change America.” With that I left.
I get mad when people tell me I’m wasting my time on something that’s meaningful and important to me. If I want equal rights I will get them. Look at all the work we women are putting in. Shouldn’t that be enough to show we are just as good, qualified, and patriotic as men?
I enter the meeting with my head held high.
On November 11, 1918 the Great War, now known as WWI ended. We celebrate it as Veterans Day. We have parades and parties; many celebrations and the importance of why we celebrate should be heard; to honor all those who lost their lives for our freedom and safety, for all who suffered what we couldn’t begin to imagine.
Women won the battle for suffrage. On August 18, 1920 women gained the right to vote. It was the opening of a door to all the rights women now have earned in the decades to come. The right to equal opportunities in work and society, the right that women can do anything a man can do. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
As a young lady, I’m proud. I’m proud girls can do anything men can do. As an American, I’m proud we have so many brave souls to give us the freedom we so desperately want. I would love nothing more than to thank each and every veteran individually.
American Experience Influenza 1918. Directed by Robert Kenner. WGBH Educational Foundation. Public Broadcasting Service. 1998.
“Spanish Influenza in North America 1918-1919” Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Harvard University Library Open Collections. Accessed 17, Oct. 2017.
Grant R. G. World War I. The Definitive Flawed History. DK Publishing. 2014. Print.
“In the Aftermath of World War I, Nations Were Forever Changed.” ThoughtCo.com. Newsela.com. 2017. Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.
Keene, Jennifer. “World War I” GilbertLehrman.org. Gilbert Lehrman Institute of American History. 2017. Accessed 17 Oct. 2017
“Outbreak of World War I” History.com. Newsela.com. 2017. Accessed 14 August. 2017.
Sara’s essay is not perfect. It switches points-of-view; there are some grammar issues. However, it does contain lots of period detail and a thorough knowledge of the myriad social changes brought on by the war. Sara paid direct attention to the prompt and made sure her essay addressed all criteria.
I decided to use this essay contest to teach my students how to blend genres in their writing. To start, I did that by writing my own first draft of a story that shifted from narrative to expository about halfway through.
I read my first draft aloud while students followed along on their own copy. I read it straight-through first and then we picked it apart, paying special attention to where exactly I “stepped out of” my story and began my informational writing.
You’ll see that this first draft is incomplete and shaky… some of my character’s names weren’t even decided yet and some of the plot’s action was abbreviated or even missing at this stage. Also, the point of view changed to third-person near the end, which I would need to fix.
With this mentor text, I told my students, I merely wanted them to see how to write narratively and then how to “step out of” the narrative and into informational writing. The bolded text at the top was just my note to students.
This is a start at my attempt at a blended genre essay… this is BOTH narrative and INFORMATIONAL….
How does it work in your opinion???
World War I: Remembering the War to End All Wars
“Well, don’t you think that since I worked alongside men and other women and other… well, Americans… that I ought to at least be able to cast a vote?” I tossed my head to the side. A strawberry blonde curl fell across my eyes.
I could tell my face was red and I hate it when my face turns red, but I was so sick and tired of having to explain this to people, most of all Mary, my closest friend, or who I thought was my closest friend. I straightened my wool skirt. I pulled the curl away from my eyes and tucked it behind an ear. I felt an argument sparking between us.
Mary turned to me, “But, Fiona, if they let women vote, then we’ll have to …”, she hesitated.
“Be responsible? Intelligent? Up-to-date on what’s going on in the world?” I interrupted. I was flabbergasted. To think that we had both worked in the munitions factory, and had even moved to Chicago because there were so many jobs what with the war raging in Europe. To think that our jobs were contributing to the cause to fight the German Empire filled my heart with patriotism and duty.
Here’s where I step out of my story and start writing informationally:
The Great War ended on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. It was the dawn of a new era for the world and for American women like Fiona who had felt the rumblings of progress when they filed one by one into the factories and offices while their men fought overseas. Knowing that they were keeping the country producing weaponry, food, and the other supplies for the homefront and for our allies caused them to feel the burdens that had been borne primarily by the men of the country. With this knowledge, it only seemed obvious that now they had earned the right to vote alongside the men they had filled in for during the war. Suffrage was justified.
Here’s where I step back into my story and resume writing narratively:
This conversation was the exact same one I had been engaged in with various people… friends, other women at the factory, my parents. It seems that no one takes it as seriously as I do, and I don’t understand why. We owe it to our men – the ones who’ve fought in and survived those horrible trenches– to be responsible. Why should they carry all the load? It’s not fair to them, I have tried to explain so many times.
It seems the only people who understand me or agree with me are the suffragists, the women who have been wanting much longer than I have to see that women get the right to vote. I’ve been to a few of their meetings… loud, raucous events that you would think would have more of an impact than they do.
“Well, Fiona, I know you’re convinced this is the next step for women, but I guess I’m not so sure,” Mary ended the conversation. She picked up her bag, turned and walked away from me. We had arrived at the factory that morning early, done our jobs, and now we were returning to our homes. Separately. I wasn’t sure this would dispute we were in would end amicably. I wasn’t so sure she was truly my closest friend anymore.
The next evening, I attended a suffragette meeting downtown. Alone. Mary wouldn’t go with me.
“I know it’s probably a good thing, but I’ll let those women decide how to get the vote,” she had told me earlier when I inquired whether she wanted to go.
“Well, I’m not going to let others decide what I’m going to do and when. It’s the year 1918. The war is over. And I can’t vote. It’s ridiculous,” I told her.
“Well, ridiculous or not, I’m not going to that meeting. You’ll have to go alone,” she had said. And so I went alone.
The meeting began at 8:00 p.m. The meeting hall was full but not crowded. Mostly women and girls were there, huddling in groups at the beginning. Around 8:15, a woman took the stage. “Ladies, we are here tonight to once again discuss the Suffragist movement. WE must remain strong. We must convince other women that their opinions, their attitudes matter. The victorious Allied forces owe American women a debt. Because we worked, the Allies won. Through working, we fought in our own way. Because we worked, our men are back home and our country is on the move. The future of the United States of America and its women is bright!” Those in attendance clapped, filling the meeting room with thunderous enthusiasm.
As I watched the activitiy on stage, I noticed the speaker motion to a young man who was standing to the right of the stage. He was in uniform, and well… there’s just something about a man in uniform. The man walked forward to Stanton, removed his cap, and bowed his head to the audience. Who was he, I asked myself?
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce _______, who has just returned from the battlefield of ______________. I asked Mr. ____ if he would tell us of his experiences in the Great War and also relate to us his thoughts – and the thoughts of his fellow soldiers — about suffrage. I believe you will be encouraged by his words as we continue to fight for the vote.”
Sgt. ______’s speech goes here:
I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for the suffrage meeting I had attended. When I spoke with Mary at the factory the next morning, there was a frostiness in the air between us. She listened, but barely. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t supportive. How anyone could continue to keep the voice of women out of politics and economic matters baffled me. When I mentioned my short conversation with Sgt. _____, she listened with curiosity at first, and then with disdain at the mention of Sgt. _________.
“Well, of course, your advocacy for suffrage only builds when there’s suddenly a handsome soldier involved!” She deposited her handbag into her locker, turned the key, and stomped off to her sewing machine. I stared after her, then headed for my own station.
Could I let this friendship go? Was I ready to take that step? Women usually work together, stick by each other, and support one another.
I arrived early at the next meeting of the suffrage society, …. Was placed on a committee of young women to plan events to ensure that suffrage will pass. My committee was tasked with setting goals for the members as we work together to ensure passage of the 19th amendment.
First on the list: women should be allowed to vote alongside men, and to eventually hold office alongside men, whether it’s the office of head garbage collector, mayor, or even President of the United States!” I chimed in, amazed at my own bravery and high-minded idealism. This movement, born out of necessity from the horrors of the Great War, was changing me!
Has another conversation with Sgt. __________… it goes well and holds promise for the future for her personal life.
She decides to give up the friendship with Mary. It’s a tough decision, but having a say in elections is more important to Fiona than a friendship full of constant disagreement. Once she makes this decision, she knows she has made the right one. She feels that suffrage is more than just an idea, it’s a movement, a tidal wave, progress. It’s one of the few good things that came out of World War 1 and it will positively impact the future of the Uniteid States.
And it’s only a matter of time.
( 1,018 words)
Using my self-written mentor text was key to helping students see how they could write a story that they could, while in the same paper, “step out of” in order to explain facts, details and other information about the war.
Nearly all my students understood how to take the blended-genre approach to their entry and most used that approach. None of my IEP kids took the blended-genre route, which was fine. I knew they recognized when the genre shifted from narrative to informative; however, writing that on their own (with help) was difficult, and they tried. At least they were exposed to the technique… maybe next year!
This is the main reason I love the DAR American History Essay Contest: It has always allowed kids to write narratively, but the prompt can also be elevated to show kids how to blend genres. That’s an advanced skill, and one that isn’t addressed in the Missouri Learning Standards until ninth grade. It’s nice to know that my students have a “heads up” on this advanced writing move.
Thanks for reading! If you learned something with this post, click “like” and then leave a comment to let me know exactly what resonated with you, or if you have a question… ask away!
Also, follow this blog for a future post where I’ll share how I’ll prepare my students for the 2019 DAR contest. The theme? The Passage of the 19th Amendment, Women’s Right to Vote.
I’ll share about finding helpful videos, texts, and other resources, plus how I make homework assignments that build prior knowledge and lead up to the contest. I also have students focus on precise details that can infuse their essays with realism.
So far, these methods have worked for me and have helped my students win and build their writing confidence— my ultimate goal.
It’s hard to find mentor texts sometimes, and occasionally I just write one myself when the need arises, or I scroll through my sister blog to find stories I’ve already written.
For my students, I define “memoir” as a personal narrative that contains a beginning, middle, and end, plus a lesson learned from the situation. That lesson learned can also be simply a realization or understanding of the writer’s place in the world, or how the world, (or more generally, life) works. For younger or struggling writers, the lessons learned can be overtly stated in the concluding paragraphs, as in “From this experience, I learned…” However, for more skilled writers, the lessons learned can be implied and woven into the piece in a more unexpected or creative way. Here’s my memoir. Feel free to use for educational purposes.
Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings
During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.
I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car. My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park.
My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Every day without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.
One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.
I continued to make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving.
But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew, if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did. Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?
Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the park.
With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that. I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do every day of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.
Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.
I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time every day) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior. Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.
Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.
Follow this blog for writing contests, more mentor texts, reflections and other observations about teaching middle school ELA. I plan to post more mentor texts soon, and if you follow this blog, you’ll receive an email when those are added. Check out my sister blog for more writing. Thanks for reading!