I teach a bunch of rejects

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they are indeed writers.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get rejected.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again:
“Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”

And then I photograph my rejects,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.


Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.

Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!

 

My top three movies for the last week of school that will let you keep your teaching integrity

Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller

Rated PG; 114 minutes long; Reason to watch: To see a movie that advocates living life to the fullest; Bonus: Great for graduating students. In fact, I show this to my graduating 8th-graders as they transition to highs school.

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Sully: Miracle on the Hudson starring Tom Hanks

Rated PG-13 for stressful moments during plane landing; Length: 96 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about a real-life hero who remains humble and respectful; Bonus: Discusses the “human factor” and how in a high-tech age, we must always respect the individual and his/her unique decision-making abilities.

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The Walk: The Triumphant True Story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Rated PG; Length: 123 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about the World Trade Centers and how important and integral they were to millions of Americans and people around the world; Bonus: Your kids will have a deeper appreciation of Sept. 11 terror attacks after watching this film. My 6th-graders absolutely love this movie!

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Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more ELA teaching ideas. Happy summer!

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

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

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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:

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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:

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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 WritersDigest.com 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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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!

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity

 

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George Ella Lyon, American Writer and Teacher

Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

I always display the students’  work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.

To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem

Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.

These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.

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I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!


Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

My Attempt at a STEM Activity: Exploring Coffee Lids

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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

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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.

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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

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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 can 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!
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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,
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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.

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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:

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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.