In the spirit of all the books we’re giving away (winners announced tonight!), today’s mini-lesson is one of my favorites to do with independent reading books. It celebrates the beauty and power of language, no matter the text–poetry, nonfiction, YA, award-winners, graphic novels, and more. It also celebrates the pure joy of discovery; the launch into a new world attained only by opening to the first page of a new book.
Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify patterns in opening and closing lines of texts, synthesize their noticings, and draw conclusions about a text’s craft and structure.
Lesson: “Have y’all learned about the concepts of primacy and recency in psychology yet? Who can refresh us?”
A student reminds us that the concept says that the first and last items in a series are easier and more likely to be committed to memory.
“Well, this concept isn’t just for psychology. It applies to books too. The first and last lines of books are the most powerful, and the most likely to stick with us. Let’s talk in our table groups about why the first and last lines are so powerful.”
I wander the room for three minutes as students discuss, in groups of 3-4, these concepts. They conclude that the first line often sets the tone, introduces a new world, or hooks the reader with some mystique. The last line, they say, helps keep the reader wondering, or solves a lingering mystery, or even makes you cry.
I write these conclusions on the board, or elicit them from groups if necessary, so that we’re all on the same page.
“Okay, let’s take a look at some of our current reads and see how they can grab our attention. Open up your independent reading book and read the first line again, and then read the very last line, too.” (There’s always some anxiety about this, but I reassure them that last lines rarely contain plot giveaways.)
I ask a few students to give me examples:
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children begins with “I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen,” and ends with, “We rowed faster.”
- A Prayer for Owen Meany opens with “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meaney,” and ends with, “I shall keep asking you.”
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August begins with “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996,” and concludes, “Instead, for those few days you have left, you are mortal at last.”
- Room opens with “Today I’m five,” and ends with “Then we go out the door.”
I ask students to write for a few minutes about all that they can learn from the first and last lines, based on what they already know of the text from reading. This is key–the lesson is much different than a simple craft study of a text they’re not already invested in, because they’re bringing lots more prior knowledge to their text analysis.
I quickly model with Room, whose plot is simply explained and well known from a recent booktalk. “I notice the sentence structure first–both lines are short, simple sentences. Then I get a sense of the narrator’s voice, as he is obviously five years old, and that shapes how I’m going to view the text. I also know that while they start out trapped in Room, they manage to escape somehow, either literally or figuratively, because of the last line. I’m intrigued by all of these things, and it sets me up for what sounds like a pretty good read.” As I talk, I note on the board the kinds of things I’m noticing–craft, tone, characterization, theme, plot, sentence structure.
Students write for five minutes about these topics. Because they’re midway through these books, they have more knowledge of the text than just the first and last lines. After a few minutes of writing about what they’ve noticed, I ask, “Now, how does revisiting the first line, and looking ahead to the last line, shape your reading of the text? What do you find yourself thinking about? What do you predict might happen?”
Follow-Up: After students have written their reflections, I ask that they pass notebooks. They’ll read all of their table mates’ entries, providing 2-3 mini-booktalks–a variation on speed dating.
This lesson could also be a great companion to Jackie’s mini-lesson on writing leads.
This lesson also acts as one of a series of lessons leading up to the students’ writing of a craft analysis of their independent reading books.