Tag Archives: author’s craft

Mini-lesson Monday: Exploring a Page’s White Space in the Writer’s Workshop

PrintCircling the room, I hand out books in preparation for book speed dating. I place Ellen Hopkins’ Crank on a student’s desk.

“There’s no way I’m reading this,” she mutters to her friend. “This thing is huge.”

“Open it up.” I turn towards her, waiting for her to crack the book. She flips to a page and realizes the entire book is in verse. She flips again and again, every page has a minimalist feel, the text spread out, placing emphasis on each word within the sea of white. The sheer length of the book disappears and she is sucked into Hopkins’ narrative.

The more time I spend with teenagers, the more I value the use of that essential “white space.” I love book talking Patricia McCormick’s Sold or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; despite their complex and emotional content, the books are instantly more accessible simply because of their unique structure.

This is why when we discuss paragraph breaks in writing and aesthetics and structure in reading, we also discuss the glory of giving the reader’s eye a break.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the use of white space within a piece of writing. They will make observations about the author’s use of this tactic, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in employing the use of white space. Finally, use choice reading and whole class examples as mentor texts, they will practice using white space within their own writing by formulating paragraphs at various lengths, revising these paragraphs through peer conferencing, and applying this craft in future writing assignments.

Lesson: Divide students into groups of three or four and have them open up their independent reading books to any page. Ask them to brainstorm what they see based on the page—tell them not to look at content, but instead the structure of the page—the text, paragraph breaks, and length. Have them compare their pages to each other, noting the similarities and differences. Once they have completed this, bring them back together into a whole class discussion. While they discuss their observations, compile a list on the board of what they noticed.

I love to breathe life into authors and remind students that a writer consciously makes decisions on the craft of their pieces. In turn, I have them to return to the structure of their page, focusing mostly on the line breaks, white space, and the spacing and formatting of the text in general. They reflect on this in their writer’s notebook, asking themselves: why do you think the author made this decision? What did they want the reader to think and/or experience?

IMG_2906Following their reflection, we return to discuss their individual pages as a class. Students volunteer to share why their author might have made the stylistic or structural decisions they did, which in turn, inspires other students to reflect further on their own page choices.

We discuss “one sentence paragraphs” and how they stand out surrounded by the white space of heavier paragraphs. They explore how white space can frame longer paragraphs and why exactly writers might use longer paragraphs to convey their point or tell a denser story. We notice how the white space of line breaks can show the passing of time and why it is important for readers to visually have a moment to internalize this time lapse. And finally, as readers, we share how we respond to cramped passages versus double spaced books.

The process of using choice books paired with class discussion helps students recognize the value of their role as a reader as well as how they can utilize these methods within their own writing.

Following our discussion, I take a few minutes to reinforce the points we’ve made either on the white board or through a prepared PowerPoint. These slides provide visual examples from books I am currently reading as well as some tips for applying this knowledge to our own writing.

Follow-Up: At the beginning of the year, students complete a snapshot narrative followed by a longer personal narrative. Using the mentor examples as well as the examples from our choice reading, we look at how we can integrate white space into our own pieces either through line breaks, diverse paragraph lengths, or one-sentence paragraphs. Based on this mini-lesson, they can also trade narratives and provide peer feedback to one another.

What are some mini-lessons you use to help students analyzing the structure of books? How do you help them integrate these observations into their own writing?

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Yes, I’ll Share my Reading List

Awhile back I wrote Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English. I am pretty sure I thanked everyone individually for the comments. If not, thank you for helping me think through this pedagogy even more. One reader asked for my reading list, and I’ve been derelict in posting that. I am sorry.

Since my classroom instruction centers on helping students identify themselves as readers and writers, I being Readers and Writers Workshop on the first day of school. We read and workshop a short piece — sometimes my AP English Language syllabus one-pager. We write and usually do a short revision workshop. Students learn quickly that writing requires revision.

In years past I’ve even provided each students with a writer’s notebook — just so we could get started taking ownership of it on the very first day. (That was the year composition books were 10 cents. I haven’t seen them so low since.)

I give students the following list of books and tell them that at each quarter they will be responsible for getting their hands on one of the titles. They may purchase the book, borrow it from a library, download it to their device, or in extreme circumstances, check out one of the few copies of each title I keep in my room.

We are a classroom of readers, so reading is the only option.

Note:  I didn’t facilitate four book clubs this year. We only had time for three, and we never got to the first list of books below. It took me a long while to learn how to fit my instruction into the schedule at my new school:  a 90 minute period where I see my students every other day and then every other Friday. I lost some time figuring it out.

Next year, I am going to put this list first, and we will analyze author’s craft as we learn about argument. I’m also thinking of only introducing Gladwell’s books. I’ll add David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and maybe What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures after I read it this summer. That way students will still have choice as to which book they select, but all students will be reading books by the same author. This should work well as we study the moves of one writer, something I waited way to late to do this year.

Book Club One:

Outliers, the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Quiet:  the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

 

Book Club Two:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls (non-fiction)

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

 

Book Club Three:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

 

Book Club Four:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk by Ben Fountain

I am always reading some piece of compelling literature, always on the look out for the next book to add to these book club lists. My students did not enjoy The Bell Jar, although many students chose to read it, and no one chose to read The Things They Carried, even though I made as big a deal out of it as all the other titles. I just added Swamplandia this year, and then I forgot to talk about it, so it is still not vetted with students.

If you have any suggestions for compelling, complex, rich literature that engages adolescent readers, please share your titles in the comments. Thank you.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Columbine by Dave Cullen

20130207-190708By far the best book I read this summer was Columbine by Dave Cullen. As part of my class at #UNHLit13, I chose to read this book and study it for craft with three other teachers. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite.

I’ve been in book clubs before, and I’ve had my students conducting literature circles for a long while now, but I’ve never experienced the power of studying a book like this one.  Maybe it was the subject matter. Maybe it was the amazing group of professionals who were invested in the process as much as I was. Whatever it was, Dave Cullen has crafted a masterful piece that moved me.

I want my students to experience this kind of emotion when they read a book. I also want them to see the art in crafting language. (I’ll use excerpts in mini-lessons throughout the year.)

These are the first clips I will show my students this year, and I guarantee my copy of Columbine will land in a student’s hand, and the waiting list will start out long. I better prep the school library to get their copy ready, too.

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