Circling 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?
Following 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?