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.
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.
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.
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.
I searched through lower Manhattan to find the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. building
There’s nothing like visiting a place you’ve only read about in books. Last week during spring break, my daughter and I visited New York City primarily to visit the City College of New York, where my daughter will begin graduate school next fall.
Last Tuesday, instead of taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we took the NYC Ferry across the East River to Wall Street Pier 11 to see the sights of lower Manhattan, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, where 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants, died in a fire that swept through the building in about thirty minutes on March 25, 1911.
Among other gross negligences, exit doors were blocked, water buckets were empty, and fire escapes were found unable to withstand the weight of those rushing down. It was a horrific sight for onlookers to watch scores of young women leap to their deaths onto the concrete sidewalks below.
The fire ultimately ushered in many improvements to working conditions that Americans of all industries now enjoy. For example, fire drills, fire exits and escape routes, and outward-swinging exit doors are all safety stand-bys that we take for granted.
There are two plaques on the corner of the former Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911) that commemorate the disaster. The lower plaque, which designates the site on the National Historic Landmark, is shown above. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows:
On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.
The exterior of the Triangle Fire building appears exactly as it did in 1911. Today, it is known as the Brown Building and houses the biology and chemistry classes at New York University. It stands at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, about a block east of Washington Square Park and its famous arch.
It’s so valuable to me to visit a place that I teach about. It adds relevancy to the book I read with my eighth-graders each fall, Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin. If you’re ever able to see a location in person that you’ve read about, take advantage of the opportunity.
Thanks for reading! Have you ever visited a location you’ve taught or read about? Leave a comment to let me know. Here are some links to other posts in this blog regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.
Click here,here and here for three posts regarding our Triangle Fire unit. I also discuss how I incorporate Triangle Fire into my eighth-graders human rights dissertations in this post.
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.
I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.
About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.
Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.
About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read. Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”
Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.
He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.
So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all.
Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result? An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.
Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.
When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my middle school classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.
I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.
Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.
How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me
However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused on Gallagher’s high school handout in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.
For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.
Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:
Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.
I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand. My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.
Kids need narrative practice, too
One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week). EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food. I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.
Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.
I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times. One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year. However, if you teach middle school, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.
One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.
Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article, using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.
This is how we do it
After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips about players who suffer from concussion injuries.
The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.
I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective teaching tool. However, I know these weekly assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students.