Tag Archives: Revision

Try it Tuesday: Thesis Statement Dissection

Buttering someone up is an idiom that has long made me smile. Perhaps it is my deeply rooted devotion to butter (the dairy state doesn’t play…you can’t live here if you dislike butter) or the visual of someone taking a stick of butter and applying it like deodorant, but either way, I buttered up my students the other day and it worked deliciously.

Basically, I slathered it on like this:

  • Remind students of how awesome they are at writing thesis statements because they have been doing it for years.
  • Have students apply their reviewed knowledge of quality thesis statements to their own papers in order to double check their awesomeness at this skill.
  • Elevate them to the role of “expert” in the area of thesis writing in order to have them make suggestions to their peers about clarity and depth of their awesome thesis statements. 

Underlying all of this was my firm knowledge, butter in hand, that many of their thesis statements were currently far from awesome. However, this certainly wasn’t because my students lacked the skills to clearly convey their ideas, it was most likely because they had procrastinated in writing their drafts, checked out to the warmer temperatures and sunshine, or hadn’t taken the time to really carefully reflect on what they had written in favor of working on something for just about any other class.

So basically, the issues of every paper written by a high school student in May.

In order to encourage some honest reflection and move their work forward, I employed the following strategy:

1. First, I shared with students a thesis statement I wrote to accompany an informative paper I was writing along with them. We talked about the different elements present in my sample and how they matched up with what students knew of writing complex thesis statements. One area we worked through together was my struggle with a negatively connotated word that was pushing my informative thesis statement in the direction of argument. Having students help me change the word, demonstrated what I was going to ask them to do in small groups shortly. (Much praise here and reminders of how awesome they already are at writing thesis statements.)

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Students work on their thesis statements in small groups, under the projection of the sample paper I wrote along with them

2.  Next, we reviewed the non-negotiable elements of effective thesis statements. I asked students to highlight their inclusion of those elements and/or comment on their papers with what was missing so they could return and revise. We included that an informative thesis statement needed to present non-debatable facts, organization of those facts into a logical roadmap for the paper, and inclusion of a “so what?” element to clarify purpose for their audience on the specific elements of the topic the paper would cover.  At this point, we circled back to my thesis statement and looked one more time with theses specific elements in mind. (Again, more buttering up in the form of high praise to their identification skills and encouragement to now apply that thinking to their own work)

3. I then asked students to spend ten minutes or so, writing their thesis statements on our mini whiteboards, revising as they went. They were to write notes on the side to indicate areas they needed help on or questions they had about the effectiveness of their statements.

4. With markers in hand, students then gathered in small groups, “presented” their thesis statements to their group members by reading aloud and asking questions, and then worked collaboratively to strengthen their sentences. (Before they got to work, I reminded them of how highly qualified they all were to assist others and how as a classroom of writers, each student could provide insight to his/her peers on improving the work)

Honest conversations around the room included such statements as:

“I see what you mean. That part made sense in my head, but it needs to move over here.”

“I like it, but I’m still asking ‘so what?’ Like, what’s your point about stereotypes?”

And my personal favorite, “Dude. That thesis is awesome. Can I steal that idea to have a dependent clause first? My audience needs to think about historical examples of Congressional corruption before they can really understand how bad it’s gotten.”

Dude. Did you just reference syntactical choices to more appropriately orient your audience for your paper? Mic drop.

 

While students worked in small groups, I was able to conference with several members of the class one-on-one. In addition, I noted a few kids I would need to pull into a small group during the following class period to continue guiding their work on these statements.

With the messiest looking whiteboards I have seen in quite some time, students returned to their seats and kept working on both their thesis statements and the necessary adjustments to their papers to reflect their revisions.

I could have easily reviewed the parts of an effective thesis statement and walked around to take a look at what kids had already written. But by helping students see each other and themselves as resources, most of the class improved their clarity and complexity significantly and my involvement was minimal.

In a community of writers, everyone is a resource. Sometimes it just takes a little grease, er butter, to get the parts moving and the collaboration started.

What are your ideas for helping students see themselves as writing resources in the classroom? Please leave your comments below! And, Happy Teacher’s Day! 

 

 

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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: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.


Lesson
— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina

Please Don’t Judge Me

“So, uh, yeah this is pretty embarrassing for me.” I could feel my face flush in front of my 1st period Advanced Composition before I’d even begun. My voice shook as I stood in front of the 24 pairs of 17-year old eyes—the most vulnerable position one can be in. I had captured their attention at 7:45 in the morning, but I could feel my innards twist as I stammered through some of the usual excuses I hear from my student-writers: “I need to tell you the backstory first” and “I hope you get what I’m trying to say.”

Then I started, reading line by line the maid of honor speech I will deliver in fewer than two weeks at my best friend’s wedding. It wasn’t the first time I had shared my writing; I write with my students during quickwrites, share finalized pieces with them throughout the year, and discuss drafting pieces for this blog, but this speech was different—it was raw, personal, and untraditional. I had made some major stylistic decisions that pushed me, particularly as a writer, outside my comfort zone.

“I really need your feedback,” I said to them. And I was honest, practically on the verge of begging. “You see,” I continued, “writing happens throughout your life, and in this instance I need your help to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself in front of 200 guests.”

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My Advanced Composition class, pictured here, helped to walk me through the revision process.

“You’re going to trust us?” a student asked.

“Yeah,” I responded, “Plus, at the wedding I’ll be in front of 200 people I might never see again, whereas here, I’m with you guys for the rest of the year. So, if I’m embarrassed here, it’s going to be really bad at the wedding,” they laughed and they listened to me recite the piece with a calm voice and a racing mind, a mind that begged them to chuckle at the jokes and coo at the memories. When I came to the end, I looked up, realizing again, as I have realized so many times before just how vulnerable it is to share writing. This time though, as much as it made me nervous, I knew that the only way to teach writers was through modeling. If I was asking them to expose their writing to each other, I had to be willing to expose my writing flaws as well, even if it felt like singing solo karaoke stone-cold sober.

Then the suggestions came: “I’m not sure what you were doing with that transition, maybe try to make it more specific.” “I would like to hear about when you first met her fiancé.” “I think you could add another story.” Their words were carefully chosen as not to offend but instead encourage and help. While some students doled out praise, others helped to polish the piece. Even trailing side conversations pertained to how to make the piece stronger. I typed their comments into the document, repeating what each of them would say, and then I sent them to begin a similar process of reading aloud their personal narratives within groups of three.

Next week I will arrive in class with another draft of my speech, and I will repeat the cycle. They must see me live the life of a writer if they are going to believe what I say. They must see me absorb their feedback if they are going to understand the value of peer review. And above all, they must watch me return, raw nerves and baited breath, if they are to believe that I see value in their words.

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