Tag Archives: #minilesson

Mini-lesson Monday: Thinking about Complexity

Many of my writers seem stuck in simple sentences. I think this has something to do with their reading fluency. When I ask them to read me a few lines out loud, they read in monotone with faltering phrases and seemingly little knowledge of the workings of punctuation. One of the best assessment tools I have for knowing what my readers need to help them become better writers is these few moments of one-on-one read alouds– them to me — in conferences. These conferences also remind me how closely my reading and writing instruction must be aligned. If my students cannot read well, I cannot really expect them to write well. (And it shows the huge variance of abilities in my AP Language classes.)

In an effort to move my readers and writers into more complexity, and to get them to start paying more attention to sentence structure in their independent reading, I know I must expect them to take action with what they learn. But I do not want to mandate anything I cannot keep up with, nor anything that will make students not want to read. So I decide to start a new challenge with our “quotes board” — the one that’s remained largely empty for most of this year.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels students will recognize and identify interesting and complex sentence structures; they will then copy the sentence into their writer’s notebooks and/or onto a notecard to use it as a mentor; then in their weekly blog posts, they will write and practice their craft, including at least one beautifully constructed sentence in their post. (If they choose to share their mentor sentence, they will pin it to our “quotes board” to display it for the week.)

Lesson:  First, I remind students that we’ve talked about sentence boundaries and sentence structure since the beginning of the year. I tell them that today we’re going to learn two different types of sentences:  periodic, and loose or cumulative, and look at how writers link details and ideas within sentences that create description and often rhythm.

I say, “We are going to study sentences from the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr is our writing coach for the week. Let’s see what we can learn about writing more interesting sentences.”

I project the loose sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “How do all the details trailing off of the main idea make the sentence more interesting? What do you notice?”

loose sentence 1

After we’ve discussed the loose sentence, and I feel like students understand what makes it loose and how to identify this type of sentence, we move to the periodic sentence.

I project the following periodic sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “Why put the main idea of the sentence at the end?” I ask.

periodic sentence 1

We discuss why the author might have chosen to craft the sentence this way. “What does putting the main clause of the sentence at the end do for the meaning?” I ask.

Next, we study a few other beautifully crafted sentences I pulled from the novel. (There are so many!) Each time encouraging students to talk with one another to first identify the independent clause and then determine if the sentence is loose or periodic or an interesting combination. I remind them to discuss the meaning of the sentence and why the structure might matter.

We study.

beautiful sentence

and

beautiful sentence 2

And before we move into searching for loose and/or periodic sentences in our own independent reading books, I ask students to practice reading these four sentences aloud to one another.

“Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentence and what the punctuation does to create that rhythm,” I say. I give them a few moments to read sentences to one another at their tables. Low stakes. They know one another well, and there is no pressure. They help each other read, which is exactly what I want in my community of learners.

Follow up: I ask students to pay attention to the sentences in their independent reading books. “Watch for loose or periodic sentences,” I say, “and here’s the challenge:   When you find one, write it out on a notecard, and post it on the quotes board. Let’s see how many of these beautiful sentences we can collect this week.”

And remember to write at least one loose or periodic sentence in your blog post this week. Let’s work on crafting beautiful sentences like Doerr in our own works.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Talking Tone and a Bit More Reasoning in Our Writing

I sat at our staff Christmas party talking to a colleague about the essays my students just drafted. We read and analyzed several pieces by Leonard Pitts, Jr, talking about the effectiveness of his style, arguing over his opinion, justifying our own. The task was to write their own OpEd piece, responding to a topic in the news or a topic of their choice. Most chose interesting topics:  How the world defines beauty, Should armed guards protect our schools, Does keeping a home clean matter in the long run..

A few students wrote clearly articulated arguments that show intentional craft moves.

Many showed intentional craft moves but wrote little in the way of argument — or anything close to critical thinking about their topics. In short, some of my writers say pretty much nothing, but they say it very very well.

Therein lies the problem:  How do I get some of my students to think critically about their topics so they can write critically about their topics?

Sitting at that dinner, my friend and colleague, Mary Heffner, shared an activity she’d recently done with her students to help them understand tone. I decided that not only would it help my students understand tone (which most failed to consider when they began writing — “Do I have to remind them of every little thing?” she says with a sigh), but it could help them reason through the beliefs they have about their topic and write stronger sentences they might use when they revise.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Define the tone of your essay; Construct reasons to express why your topic should be expressed by that tone word; Create sentences and synthesize your knowledge of punctuation, syntax, and sophisticated vocabulary to express your reasons while using this tone; Revise your writing to include these well-constructed sentences.

Lesson — (Prior to reading their drafts, I asked students to identify the tone of their pieces and write it in the top right corner of their papers. I determined quite easily that many of my writers thought they felt a certain way about their topics but were having trouble expressing that tone.)

First, I ask writers to clarify their choice of tone word by putting a short list of common adjectives that describe tone on the board:  infuriated, excited, confused, sorrowful, scornful, exasperated, concerned. We quickly define what each word means. I then tell students what I noticed when I look at the tone word they wrote on their papers and when I read their essays. “Some of you have a misconnect — you think you’re taking a certain tone, but you have little or no evidence of it in your writing. (Time permitting we might revisit one of Pitt’s pieces that we read as our mentor text and analyze the tone.)

“The other thing I noticed in your writing is a lack of reasoning. Today we are going to practice getting both a clear tone and powerful reasoning into our arguments.

“Once you have your tone word, and you know this is how you feel about your topic, you will write five reasons that support your topic and demonstrate this tone. Sometimes you can even use the tone word, or a synonym of it, in your reasoning sentences.”

Then I show students my own reasons I wrote to add to my writing. My topic “longer vacation time over the holidays.” The tone “emphatic.”

Reasons:

  1. Two weeks vacation time hardly covers the travel time when a family must drive far distances to share just a moment with their loved ones.
  2. Teenagers thrive on rest and relaxation.
  3. If families spent more time together we may have fewer problems in our society.
  4. Teachers work too hard, sometimes even taking work home over the break, to not enjoy more one-on-one time with their families over the holidays.
  5. With a longer, more relaxing, break, students and teachers would return to school more rejuvenated and infused with energy to embrace the love of learning.

As they read through my reasons, I ask students to talk to one another about my word choice:  How do I show I emphatically care about this topic?

Follow up — Students will revisit their drafts and work on clarifying gaps in reasoning. They will add their five new sentences to make their arguments stronger and more logical.

Reflection — As we move into our next writing piece, I will be more purposeful in directing students to think about tone. We will spend more time thinking through our reasoning before we begin writing.

Sometimes I assume too much, and I end up having to take us back and start again.

Writing critically is hard for many of my students — although their style is improving. I remind myself that I must continue to give them interesting and thought-provoking things to think about — their words and many of their worlds are so limited.

 

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

Mini-lesson Monday: Student Writing as Our Mentors for Sentences

I read Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray this summer, and I finally understand the importance of using student writing as the main text in my writing class. While I’ve believed students can learn from

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

reading one another’s work, and I’ve often asked them to read and give feedback — on drafts and published pieces — I’ve never thought to actually use the text to teach a concept. I don’t know why. I supposed I’ve always relied on mentor texts by The Pros for that.

I am changing my tune. Here’s a bit of a lesson that worked better than I could have imagined.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will write about their lives, and share their writing. They will recognize a wide variety of sentence structures. They will identify patterns, devices, and/or figurative language and discuss its effectiveness in creating meaning. They will revise their writing, formulate their own sentences, and apply their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: Project the image, and ask students to write in their writer’s notebooks one sentence that answers the question. Remind them about what they know about various sentence structures and how punctuation works within a sentence.

“We can pack a sentence with a lot of information if we punctuate it correctly. Pay attention and see how you do. You can write any sentence, but try to not write a simple one.”

Give students about five minutes to write.

Next, ask for a couple of volunteers who are willing to write their sentences on the board. Be sure they understand that there is no judgment.

“We just want to talk about sentences.”

While two or three students write their sentences on the board, ask the other students in the class to read their sentences to each other.

one sentence

One at a time, read the student sentences on the board. Ask:  “What do you notice?”

Ethan sentenceTalk through the various comments students make, noting parallels, punctuation, clauses, word choice, etc.

Watch for teaching points. Ethan’s sentence on the left gave us a lot to talk about:  parallelism, use of semi-colons, colons, …

Next, ask students to return to their notebooks. “How can you make your sentence better?”

Allow time for revision (and time permitting, more sharing.)

Why this lesson works, especially for a writing lesson at the beginning of the year:  It’s just a sentence!

And sometimes we get a bonus gift like this one my class got from Edward:Edward C sentence

“I am the guy who picks people up when I, myself, am down; I am the guy who cares so much over things so little; I am the missing piece to a puzzle that has been forgotten; I am now by a sad and quiet shell of my former self; I am Edward Campos.”

The class hushed. All eyes turned to Edward.

“Wow,” I said, “Thank you for sharing this writing today. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, and we value that.

“First of all, we need to know that you are okay. Will you explain a little more what you mean here?”

Edward explained that he used to be fun and outgoing. He felt strong and powerful. Then at the end of last year and over the summer he learned his friends weren’t really his friends so much. Now, he feels alone and like he’s not the person he used to be.

“Hey, everyone, how many of you have ever felt like Edward?

“Look around, my friend, do you see all those hands? Everyone here has been where you are. We understand. You have new friends here.”

Two girls at Edward’s table leaned forward and touched his arm. “We’ll be your friends,” they said smiling.

And he smiled back.

Of course, because I am me — and I never leave a teaching moment untapped — we talked about the structure of Edward’s sentence. And we talked about the word choice:  “Why ‘forgotten’ instead of ‘lost’?”

When we watch for teaching moments in student writing, we will find them. Every single time.

Follow up:  In class the next day we did some free-writing in our notebooks in response to the spoken word poem “Hands” by Sarah Kay. Before we wrote I reminded students to pay attention to their sentences. Then instead of sharing the whole of what we wrote with the class, we only shared our favorite sentence. I consider this valuable formative assessment.

Now, I will hold students accountable for crafting their sentences with care in their upcoming writing assignment.

“The words of the world want to make sentences,” said Gaston Bachelard. I say, “We have to help them.”

Please share your best tips on getting students to pay attention to their sentences.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

 

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