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Category Archives: Grammar

Goodbye Days: a Craft Study and a Gorgeous Grand Slam

I love language. I love sharing my love of language with students.

When I read a book, I often dog-ear the pages, thinking of how I might use a passage to help my writers. Sometimes a book just does me in — so many beautiful words I cannot keep up. It’s a bonus if the story does me in.

Like Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. 30649795

If you haven’t read this book, oh, you’ll want to. Zenter’s first book, The Serpent King, kissed my soul. Goodbye Days took a hammer to it.

In a good way.

I started marking passages at page 36. I think because I forgot to think about it. Just read the first line of this YA novel:  “Depending on who — sorry, whom — you ask, I may have killed my three best friends.”

Mini-lesson opportunity one (whom), two (parenthetical with the dash), three (participial phrase), and four (voice)– all in one sentence.

The first time I really thought about using language from YA novels to teach my writers was in a class at UNH Literacy Institute taught by Penny Kittle. She showed us mentors of sentences and passages, pulled from the books she introduced to her students. She talked about how these craft studies also could serve as quickwrite prompts and book talks. A triple play.

Since then, Shana (who sat with me in Penny’s class) and I upped the ante:  some of our favorite mentors are hard-hitting home runs. But the following passage from Goodbye Days –It’s a gorgeous Grand Slam.


Excerpt from Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner (p36)

     I feel like I’m watching something heavy and fragile slide slowly off a high shelf. My mind swirls with mysteries. The eternities. Life. Death. I can’t stop it. It’s like staring in the mirror for too long or saying your name too many times and becoming disconnected from any sense of yourself. I begin to wonder if I’m even still alive; if I exist. Maybe I was in the car too.

     The room dims.

     I’m tingling.

     I’ve fallen through ice into frigid black water.

     I can’t breathe.

     My heart screams.

     This is not right. I’m not fine.

     My vision narrows, as if I’m standing deep in a cave, looking out. Spots form in front of my eyes. The walls are crushing me.

     I’m gasping. I need air. My heart.

     Gray, desolate dread descends on me — a cloud of ash blocking the sun. A complete absence of light or warmth. A tangible, mold-scented obscurity. A revelation:  I will never again experience happiness.

     Air. I need air. I need air. I need air. I need.

     I try to stand. The room pitches and tosses, heaving. I’m walking on a sheet of Jell-O. I try again to stand. I lose my balance and fall backward, over my chair, thudding on the hardwood floor.

     It’s one of those nightmares where you can’t run or scream. And it’s happening to me this moment in the dying light of this day of dying. AND I AM DYING TOO.


What writing mini-lessons could you teach with this passage?

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Why I Love My Writers (and some book suggestions, too) #FridayReads

 

Maybe you see this, too:

I’ve got truly brilliant, fun-loving, willing-to-learn students this year, but when it comes to writing, they are as sloppy as a room full of toddlers with their first plates of spaghetti.  Missing periods and capital letters, too many commas (or not enough), and the makes-my-eyes-bleed lower case i. That one’s all over the room.

And I keep seeing this new thing:  the missing “it.”

Take this for example, all sentences from a self-evaluation students completed last week:  “My reading’s good, is something I do to release stress,” or this one: “Is the same thing as going somewhere,” or this: “My reading improved is better because I tried more.”

What?

Do I worry about mechanics over ideas? Never. Do I worry that my students know better and are just not paying attention? Always.

I teach juniors in AP English Language. This string-your-spaghetti-anywhere-you- want-punctuation should not be happening.

So we slowed down a bit. Took a step back. Searched in our in our independent reading books for sentences that struck us as interesting.

Students wrote their sentences on notecards. Here’s some they chose:

“It’s easier to jump out of a plan — hopefully with a parachute — than it is to change your mind about an opinion.” Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner

“We looked over toward the echoes of burdensome chimes, the slip and boom of the clutch and rasp of gears as the ice cream truck entered the dead-end streets and curves of Las Lomas.” Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez

“They played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, and in the end they lost — but not before proving that Goliath is not quite the giant he thinks he is.”  David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

“The barber gazed in amazement at this man with long-thick and black hair and beard, which gave his head the appearance of one of Titan’s portraits.” The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

“When he smiles, she notices that he has a dimple on only one side, and there’s something about this that makes him seem endearingly off-balance.” The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight  by Jennifer E. Smith

“At the end of the hallway is a boy so powerful, so fearless, that he’s set up shop in the middle of a sacred site and renamed himself Goliath.”  Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

“I felt a hot, tingly sensation spread spread over my skin as I slid down a few inches against the bench seat, wishing I could just melt directly into it’s crusty upholstery.” We Should Hangout Sometime by Josh Sundquist

“This is an ordinary Monday morning school day.A Stolen Life by Jaycee Duggard

“You see, Cinderella and I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and not recognize the reflection.”  Skinny by Donna Cooner

Then, in small groups we categorized sentences long and short, many punctuation marks or few. And we discussed the whys:  How does that mark help create meaning?

We could have spent days on this lesson. I should have allotted more time, and we will certainly return to it (maybe next week — it’s that pressing).

Then, yesterday as a way to join in on the National Day on Writing, I asked students to create a slide that explained why they write. Their slide needed to contain an image, a beautifully crafted sentence that included at least one of the literary or rhetorical devices we’d focused on recently, AND everything had to be correct: capitalization, spelling, punctuation. You might call me out on Olivia’s, but I think it works.

The ratio for correctness on this voluntary assignment was 22:6.

Here’s some of their tweets, evidence of why I love my writers. And also the reasons I hope we can take a little more care as we write. They have such amazing things to say.

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Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.

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This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title
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Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?

 

How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

Mini-Lesson Monday – Strengthening Dialogue With Punctuation

Punctuation_Saves_Lives2After reading second drafts of my students’ narratives, I was wowed by so much of their writing.  Thoughtful leads, powerful topics, intriguing plot structures.  But, despite a mini-lesson on the conventions of writing dialogue last week, some of their characters’ conversations were lacking.  I needed to design a responsive mini-lesson accordingly.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Synthesize your knowledge of how punctuation works with narrative speech conventions to craft thoughtful dialogue; Construct dialogue based on your knowledge of a character’s personality.  Or, from the Common Core: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Lesson — While reading drafts, I set aside a few exemplary pieces of student work in terms of dialogue.  In each class period, there were at least two students whose dialogue was superior.  It was subtle, nuanced, and really added to the characters’ depth.

I asked students to open their writer’s notebooks to the Craft Study section and I projected one example of a student’s work on the board using my document camera.  “Good dialogue isn’t just about what a character says,” I begin. “It’s also about how they say it.  A greeting can really change based on phrasing or punctuation.”

I point to the example on the board.  It’s Logan’s, and in his dialogue, his mom is yelling at him for getting drunk:

“LOGAN WAITMAN SANDERS!” Mom hollered. “Just WHAT do you think you are doing, young man?!  And…and…YOU, Jeremy!  You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Everyone laughs, and I ask a volunteer to read the dialogue aloud.  Dylan does, with perfect angry-Mom-inflection.  He makes Logan shrink back in his seat a little.

I ask the class, “Why did Dylan know how to read that dialogue so perfectly?”  They volunteer: the capitalization helped; he knew when to raise his voice.  “How did he know to stutter?”  They say: the dots (ellipses, I add helpfully) told him to stutter.  “How did he know to sound kind of incredulous while yelling?”  They reply: the exclamation points, and especially that exclamation point mixed with a question mark.  “How did he know when to pause?”  They know: commas.

I put up other kinds of punctuation on the board–dashes, periods, italics–and we discuss what effect each of those would have on a character’s dialogue.  Students jot all this down in their notebooks.  Then, I pass back their drafts and ask them to find a partner.  “Now that you know how to really make dialogue more personal, revise your dialogue in your drafts.  Work with a partner to determine whether or not your dialogue has the effect you want it to when you revise–write a line, then ask your partner to read it aloud the way Dylan read Logan’s.”

Students take ten minutes per person to revise, then we launch into writer’s workshop with the remainder of class.  I write beside them on the board, working on my own dialogue in my NaNoWriMo novel.

In each of my other classes, we repeat this exercise with drafts that contain good dialogue.  It’s so important to use student work as mentor texts–students see that great writing is attainable, not just imitable, when we show them their peers’ successes.

Follow-Up — After today’s revision and writing workshops, students will have one more day in class to keep working on their drafts before turning them in again.  I’ll hope to see much improved dialogue, and as such, I’ll ask writers to answer a question on their self-evaluations about how their dialogue enhances their characterization.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Sentence Boundaries and Adding Some Variety

Sorry, I forgot to record the book’s title.

Even the students in my AP English class struggle with correct punctuation and varying their sentences. In one-on-one conferences, I’ve started to remind them more often to pay attention to how the author of their self-selected books craft meaning. I used to get glossy-eyed blank stares, but students are beginning to understand that writers make intentional moves to draw us in, and keep us within, the pages of their books.

“As a writer, you must do that, too,” I remind them.

This lesson grew out of a conferring conversation with a student who told me:  “I just do not understand all the comma and semicolon stuff, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in my writing.”

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the sentence boundaries and the variety of sentence structures in their self-selected books. They will make observations about the author’s use of punctuation in these sentences, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in crafting meaning. Students will then use their author as a mentor as they apply their knowledge of sentence boundaries and sentence variety and create, revise, and rewrite sentences in their own pieces of writing. Finally, through peer-to-peer conferring, students will evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of one another’s sentences.

Lesson:  Every student needs their independent reading book. If a student is reading a book of poems, or a graphic novel without many sentences, you will want to supply a stand in book for this lesson or ask the student to find a book she’s previously read.

Tell students that you’ve noticed in their writing that they are ready to make their sentences more sophisticated. Correctness is one way to do this. Varying the length of sentences is another way. Instruct students to turn to a random page in their books, say page 51. Ask them to read the page in search of one long sentence and one short sentence. Give students sentence stips or blank paper and have them write out the sentences they find in their books. They should spell and punctuate the sentences exactly like the author does.

sentence boundaries lessonNext, in small groups, ask students to discuss with one another the structure of the sentences. They might put all the short sentences together and compare them. Then they might put the long sentences together and look at how the authors use commas to separate ideas. Some students will know more about grammatical terms than others, and that is okay. The idea is to get students noticing how writers compose within the boundaries of standard English and to get them to understand how punctuation works to craft meaning. Ask questions that help them discover why boundaries and variety work to produce effective writing.

You may choose to have students imitate the sentences they chose from their books. Imitation is a useful tool for many writers.

Using self-selected books, not just to practice wide reading, but to teach students to read like writers, adds an important element to the workshop classroom. Our writing improves when we take the time to notice and apply the skills of professional writers.

Follow up:  Have students review a piece of their own writing. The writing can be in any stage of the writing process. They should study their writing to evaluate their use of sentence boundaries and variety. Encourage students to revise their writing as necessary, remembering to use the author of their books as their mentors.

Extension:  This lesson works to have students study leads, similar to what Jackie wrote about in the mini-lesson Pick up Lines and Leads. It also works to have students search their books for sentences that include imagery.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Thanks for being our writing coach, Mr. Lightman

I’ve done a lot of thinking about structure lately. My students need to learn some. They’ve finally got some great ideas, but they are struggling with effectively sharing them in their writing.

I’ve become hyper aware.

I notice when an author introduces a topic. I notice when he builds a paragraph with reasoning and evidence. I notice when he concludes with a sentence that alludes back to the main idea. I notice balanced ideas in balanced sentences, and I get a thrill when the author captures meaning through structure and not just words and phrases.

Like this passage by Alan Lightman in his little novel Einstein’s Dreams (53-54):

There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their legs cocked as if held by strings. The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space.

As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminish, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles–at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.

Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers.

And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this soft pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the views of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.

And at the place where time stands still, one sees lovers kissing in the shadows of buildings, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The loved one will never take his arms from where they are now, will never give back the bracelet of memories, will never journey far from his lover, will never place himself in danger in self-sacrifice, will never fail to show his love, will never become jealous, will never fall in love with someone else, will never lose the passion of this instant in time.

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I love it when an author becomes our writing coach.

Thank you, Mr. Lightman.

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