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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great week!
Do what the rubric says. And only what the rubric says. And by all means, don’t think too hard.
Last week in my high school Language Arts classes, students spent time planning memoirs that they will begin drafting this week. On Friday, a few girls who had already decided on a memory to recount were starting to write their opening paragraphs.
As one student was scribbling out her first lines, she asked, “Do you have the assignment sheet for the memoir?”
“No, I’ll have it ready for you next week. For now, just go ahead and start writing,” I told her.
“How long does it have to be?” another student at the same table asked.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet. It’s too early to think about that anyway,” I told her. Actually, I had already considered an approximate length, but hadn’t decided for sure.
“But what are we supposed to put in it?” the first student pressed.
I was surprised. We had been learning about the genre of memoir all week.
“Well, what we’ve talked about the past few days,” I told her, alluding to the mentor texts we had read during our class periods earlier in the week, including a narrative by Annie Dillard, an essay written by a young woman, which appeared in Teen Ink, plus a short memoir I wrote a few years back. “You’ll write about a memory or moment that impacted your life in some way and then you’ll reflect on it… tell why the memory has stayed with you… what you gained from the experience… how it affected your life or your understanding of life.”
“Well, I’m not gonna start writing then if I don’t know what you’re looking for,” she said. “I’ll just jot down some notes for now.” In no way was this student rude or disrespectful; in fact, her candor with expressing how she wished to approach the task at hand impressed me.
“That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at her hesitation to get started. Five minutes earlier, she was ready to begin, ready to start recounting her experiences. Without the assignment sheet, however, she seemed unwilling to experiment.
I thought, Yes, make sure you don’t write anything that might not be ultimately used in your final draft. Of course, I was being sarcastic, so I kept that thought to myself; however, it did lead me to wonder that perhaps these students merely possess a “one and done” approach to writing not only in my class, but possibly other classes across the curriculum.
The whole situation gave me pause. I was taken aback that this student and her friend refused to write simply because they didn’t have “directions.”
So I rationalized. These girls are conscientious students, after all. Maybe they just aren’t used to creative writing, I thought. Or maybe they’re unaccustomed to revising their work beyond mere proofreading. That could be it.
But could it be more than that? Picturing my own detailed assignment sheets (some of which contain rubrics), I know these sheets may appear to students to spell things out a little too clearly, as in “Here’s the rubric. Do what it says. Don’t do anything it doesn’t say. Turn it in. Get the A.”
Of course, part of my reasoning for providing such detailed rubrics takes absent students into account. If a student is absent when an assignment is explained, everything they need to know about it is found on the sheet.
But in the case of these girls, could their hesitancy to start writing their memoirs be the unintended result of well-meaning teachers like me who provide students with specific checklists, detailed rubrics, and formulaic instructions for getting the job done right the first time?
By providing rubrics consistently, have I unintentionally signaled to students that the rigid adherence to a rubric is what’s most important?
Have I signaled to students that there is only one way to complete a task?
Have I inadvertently prioritized specific steps or criteria in the rubric at the expense of experimentation? In other words, can I use a rubric that encourages flexibility in a process and creativity of thought?
Does the rubric with its points awarded for a correctly cited quotation, for example, receive more consideration than it should from a busy student who just wants to finish the assignment as quickly as possible?
After all, if a student focuses on satisfying the rubric, then it won’t be necessary to rethink an idea or backtrack on a thought… essential, organic, and mysterious parts of the writing and thinking process.
Of course, rubrics serve a valid purpose. Rubrics clearly convey to students how to succeed on a task. And for teachers, rubrics allow quick, fair, and objective grading.
However, as my students’ hesitancy indicated, perhaps I should use rubrics and checklists more sparingly. Perhaps I should allow for variation from the expected way to complete a task. Perhaps I should allow—encourage even—students to find their own way through an assignment. To get lost in it. To muddle through it. To get unorthodox with it. To think it through on their own.
After all, their future boss won’t provide a rubric for landing an account or creating a marketing campaign. Instead, she’ll expect the former student to know how to figure things out for themselves.
Thanks for reading! School has started and we’ve already got a few assignments under our belts. Rubrics be warned. Stay tuned for more posts about the transition from middle school to high school ELA.
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:
Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:
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.
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.
I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,”
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.
Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
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.
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.
We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
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.
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.)
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!
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,
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.
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:
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.
This conference is chock full of sessions all day Thursday, Friday and through early afternoon on Saturday. Due to icy road conditions, I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday morning. That afternoon, I attended an especially beneficial and practice session called Teaching the Cumulative Sentence as a Positive Feature for Improving Writing. I thought it sounded very technical, but it also sounded practical, so I signed up.
Swain is a National Writing Project teacher and researcher who studied the effects of the cumulative sentence in tested written responses. She discovered that student writing that used the cumulative sentence earned higher scores than writing that did not. The cumulative sentence adds a richness to writing, and most readers are familiar with its use in their favorite books and articles. According to the session’s description, “…young people can experience growth in sentence variety, voice, coordination and subordination, diction, and rhythm while writing with evidence and passion.”
According to ThoughtCo., “A cumulative sentence is an independent clause followed by a series of subordinate constructions (phrases or clauses) that gather details about a person, place, event, or idea.” Swain explained these sentences as containing a base clause, followed by verb clusters that begin with -ing verbs. Cumulative sentences can also contain verb clusters that begin with absolute phrases (-ed verbs).
In her session, Swain first passed out a handout that contained several excerpts of student writing. She asked us to underline the most effective sentence in each paragraph. Nearly without exception, our group selected the cumulative sentences as most effective. Cumulative sentences have a certain cadence, overwhelmingly contain sensory language, and add rich detail and tone. Here’s the first handout she passed out:
Swain also passed out a lesson plan that prompts students to list details about a person they remember. These details are accumulated and placed into sentences using -ing verbs. First, the teacher asks students to think of a person whom you know well. Then the teacher asks the students to tell something that the students remember seeing the person doing.
Eventually, the students are asked to write a base clause, such as “This morning, I remember my grandmother (or whomever the student wants to write about).” Then they add the verb clusters. As the students put this information together, the teacher models her own on the board and also helps the students add commas where needed, and then ending with a period. Here’s the lesson plan sheet:
This was a really beneficial and helpful session and I plan to try this with my students after spring break. I’ll let you know how that goes in a later post! By the way, here’s an excerpt that Swain gave us to read with students, which illustrates an especially effective use of cumulative sentences. Here’s that excerpt:
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know your thoughts about this lesson plan. Do you already try something similar to this with your students?
Last December, ten of my students’ entered their writing in the 2019 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Two of those students won Silver Keys and three won honorable mention awards in the Missouri Writing Region awards, a qualifying round before the national level. (Students who win Gold Keys at regionals then have their work advance to nationals.) In 2018, one of my students won a Gold Key in poetry at regionals, and then a Silver Key at nationals. So far, I’d say we’ve had a great run!
However, it did take me a year or two to become accustomed to the submission process. The Scholastic awards do involve more than other contests I’m familiar with; it takes some extra planning to figure out.
If you’ve never entered your students’ work before in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, you should try it. It’s rigorous, prestigious, and one that your winning students should list on their high school honors records.
In case you’re unfamiliar with these awards, here’s some info from their website (link below):
“The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify students with exceptional artistic and literary talent and present their remarkable work to the world through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Through the Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. Students across America submitted nearly 350,000 original works this year in 29 different categories of art and writing.”
1. Start early. Students can open their online accounts and start submitting works for the 2020 awards on September 12, 2019. There are forms that parents must sign, so have your students enter early to allow time for those forms to go home for a signature.
2. Get parents’ best email addresses, ones they check often, prior to submitting. One of my students didn’t know her parent’s email, and that cost us some time. Also, make sure parents know that they will receive an email message about their child’s submission(s), as well as an invitation and RSVP to the regional awards ceremony.
3. Don’t have kids enter during normal class time because they’ll no doubt have questions and need some hands-on help. Or at least plan an independent activity for the students not entering the contest so you can assist those who are submitting entries.
4. Decide how entries will be paid for. Do this ahead of time. Entries cost $5 each in all categories (check out the categories here); five poems can be submitted for a single $5 fee. If a student qualifies for free and/or reduced lunch, they can print out a form to waive the fee. This form needs to be signed by a parent. This year, my school paid for all the entries; the check was mailed in separately with the ten submission forms to the address on the receipt. If your school also pays your entry fees, don’t forget to allow time for your school’s requisition process.
5. If your student enters poetry, plan a little extra time to prepare their entry. Because they can enter five poems in one entry, they can also order and arrange the poems in the single entry “file” as they see fit (such as putting their strongest one first, for example).
I’m sure I’m leaving out some details and it’s quite possible I don’t have all the facts exactly straight. To be honest, I’m still learning. However, this contest is important and it deserves your attention and time. If you notice a detail that needs correction in this post, please leave a comment below and I’ll respond ASAP.
Thanks for reading! I hope these tips will help you and your students enter the 2020 competition! Follow my blog to get updates on more contests for students.