The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beginning the Year of Crafting Writing

            This is stolen taken from Katie Wood Ray's incredible book Wondrous Words.  I do these activities at the beginning of the year. It usually takes a week or two, if done the right way.  (In other words, you cannot rush through it, because if the kids don't take ownership of it, if the teacher does too much prompting/prodding, it won't have a real impact.)

           In the first few weeks, when we teachers are setting the tone and building community, we can also get students to start reading like a writer.  Why did that author write that super-long sentence?  Why did that writer string together phrases, without a comma, and use a bunch of "and's" instead?  (I spent this summer eating chocolate and swilling green tea and reading trashy books and sitting on the couch watching Top Chef marathons and napping and blogging way too much.)  Why did the author make the chair seem as if it had feelings?

           Writers use sentence fragments for a reason.  They create a long sentence---without pauses---for a reason.  They use personification for a reason.  Students are writers, too.  They just don't know it yet.  Katie's "unit" helps students start looking at the choices writers make.

          First, choose a picture book that is short and jam-packed with writing craft (simile, metaphor, varied sentence length, personification).  Some of the books I've used before are all Cynthia Rylant's:

  • An Angel for Solomon Singer (my favorite for this purpose)
  • Scarecrow
  • In November
                                                               Day 1

 1.  You need to type up the text.  Type it up in chunks, with each "chunk" representing a page (the text on that one page).  I like to number the pages/chunks, which will make it easier down the road, when the kids are referring to a specific part.

2.  Read the book to the kids three times.  You can read it once, and have them close their eyes.  Read it the second time, and have them listen, with their eyes open. The third time, you can have them gather around/you circulate around the room, and give them a copy of the text so they can follow along with you.  You just want them to be very familiar with the text, and the struggling readers will be have a more open playing field.

3.  Have the students reread the text,.  They are to choose 3 of their favorite parts.  Each "part" can be up to 12 words long.  (Just make up a number between 10-15.  There is nothing special about 12.)  That means their favorite part might only involve 2 words.  It might be only part of a sentence. 

4.  Have them highlight those three parts.  Then have them narrow it even further.  Tell them to choose, out of the 3 parts, to choose their #1 part.  They should part a star/asterisk next to this part.

5.  Instruct the students to practice saying aloud their part, because they are going to be part of a performance.

6.  Have the students stand in a circle.  Ask if someone has a part that would be a good starting point.  Choose a volunteer to begin the piece.  They are to begin the group poem, as well as determine which way around the circle the poem will progress---clockwise or counter-clockwise.  They are to say these words before they say their favorite part:

                               An Angel for Solomon Singer, written by Cynthia Rylant
                           Rewritten by Mrs. R's Class (you plug in your name, of course)

7.  Have a "dry run" and then the real performance.  Before anyone begins, say that something really cool might happen.  Some of the students might have chosen the same favorite part.  If that happens, it will be like the chorus or refrain in a song.  It will really sound neat.  (Otherwise, they'll have a fit when they hear someone else saying the same thing they're about to say.) 

(You need to stress it should be a smooth, fluid piece.  They should be ready to read, and should read with expression.)

                                                                  Day 2-3

1.  Today students will get into small groups (4-5).  They will each cut out their 3 favorite parts and bring them along as they move into small groups.

2.  Each group will have 12-15 "parts" to use as they create a small group poems.  It will be up to them whether they use all the parts, if they cut some of the words out of some of the parts, if they choose to repeat a favorite part.  They cannot add words that are not in the text they have to work with, but they can repeat words that are part of their favorite snippets.  (Arranging and rearranging the parts, like a puzzle, is sometimes helpful.)

(They can make a rap, a song, a cheer---whatever appeals to them.)

3.  Give the groups adequate time to create and practice.  They will then perform in front of their peers

                                                              Day 4-6? 7? 8?

1.  You will need a second copy of the text for the students, since they cut up their first copy.

2.  Ask students to share with the class parts that "intrigue" them, parts that interest them, parts that make them wonder about the author.

(As much as you might want to "give" it to them, don't.  They need to find them themselves. You might get uncomfortable with the deafening sound of silence, but don't spoonfeed them.  They'll get it.)

3.  These are examples of some of the things they might make note of:

  • sentence fragments or very short sentences (three words or less is a guideline I like to use)  It rained.  It snowed.  It blossomed.  (taken, from memory, hopefully a good memory, from Scarecrow)
  • sentences that use "and's" instead of commas (They helloed and kissed and hugged and squeezed cheeks and slapped backs before we even got into the door.) 
  • really long sentences (decide on a number of words for this one, too, as your class discusses it)
  • "things" doing things they can't do in real life (personification)
  • simile/metaphor (this may take some gentle prodding)

4.  With each technique that interests the students, the whole class will examine it.  (If you number the chunks, you can ask the student, "What chunk/page is it on?" and the students can quickly find it.

5.  Ask questions like, "Why did the author write it that way?"  You might need to give clues/prompts to get a reasonable rationale.  Of course, we don't for sure know why an author wrote something in that way, but we can come up with something that makes sense.

6.  Then the class can come up with a name for the strategy.  The idea is this is a technique that writers use, it's not something this particular author invented, and the students can use the same technique in their writing.  (You can have several names for the strategy, and have them vote.)

This takes some guidance, because they are prone to making their name relate to the sentence in the picture book, instead of coming up with a name that will help them remember what the technique is.  For example, if their example is, "It rained.  It snowed.  it blossomed," their idea of a good name might be "Raining, Snowing and Blossoming" instead of "Super Short Sentences." 

7.  If the technique has a "real" name (varied sentence length, metaphor, similie, personification) fill the kids in on that, but stress what "we" will call it.

You can also make up a chart, with the following headings, so they can refer to it.  Don't choose more than 3 or 4 strategies to excavate...

Example from the book---What it looks like

Why did the author write it this way?

What do we call it?

What do high school students call it?

8.  It will probably take you a whole session to get just one strategy.  It can be slow and painful.  However, once you've done that frontloading, you can use these ideas all year.  ("How cool!  Devin found a 'Super Short Sentence' in the book he was reading at home.  Listen up, class." "How about using a "Thing Acting Like a Person" right here in your story.  It could make the reader really empathize when the desk got knocked over...")

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