In 2014, I attended Alison and Rebekah’s presentation at NCTE in Washington, DC, and left buzzing about so much of what they shared, especially sentence studies. For reluctant writers like my freshmen, a sentence study is a great way to ease into creative writing or new sentence styles. The thought of writing a paragraph sometimes paralyzes them, but a sentence they can handle.
As my freshmen study fiction, I’ve been challenging myself to find interesting sentences from our short stories and novels for sentence studies. Recently, a Notebook Time sentence study of a passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 evolved into a class-wide close reading and character analysis.
I use Notebook Time to start my classes, and Allison’s and Rebekah’s early posts at Moving Writers helped me to organize Notebook Time and keep my daily prompts varied. I began class two weeks ago with these two sentences:
The girl’s face was there, really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact. She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.
What incredible power of identification the girl had; she was like the eager watcher of a marionette show, anticipating each flicker of an eyelid, each gesture of his hand, each flick of a finger, the moment before it began.
Both sentences describe recollections that Guy Montag, the protagonist, has of Clarisse McClellan, the curious teenage neighbor who inspires him to change his life. I chose the sentences for their striking similes and layered structures. I also thought they would offer an opportunity to meditate on Clarisse’s character.
I read the sentences to the students and asked a few students to read them to the class. Then, students wrote down their mentor text “noticings.” As I expected, students noticed the similes in the first lines of the passages, and they also noticed how Bradbury uses prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and subordinate clauses to lengthen and extend the similes (students didn’t have the grammatical terms for those phrases and clauses at their fingertips, but they could see what Bradbury was doing (and that “noticing” is an invitation to a grammar lesson!)).
As students shared their noticings, I realized that they could recognize how the sentences were constructed, but it was clear that they did not understand what the sentences might mean. How could someone have a thin face like the dial of a small clock in a dark room in the middle of the night…? Why was Clarisse like the eager watcher of a marionette show, not a movie or a play?
So, before I asked students to try writing a sentence like Bradbury’s, I asked them to help me interpret the similes. The resulting discussion was the kind of great spontaneous lesson I wish I could plan but that would never be as magical if I had. I imagine many of you reading this blog have had similar “insta-lesson” miracles or, to borrow Oprah’s phrase, “Aha! moments.” Students began to notice how foreboding the first passage was, and we recognized that even though the the sentences were delivered by the narrator, they reflected Montag’s thoughts and not the narrator’s observations.
By the time my freshmen and I finished unspooling and discussing the passage, we had one more powerful “noticing” to add to our list: Bradbury’s sentences taught us as much about the teller or thinker (the third person narrator speaks with Montag as its center of consciousness) as they did about the subject or topic. The long descriptions show how Clarisse awes Montag and how he associates her with hope and danger, innocence and experience. Furthermore, if Clarisse watches Montag like she would a marionette show, then perhaps someone is pulling his strings.
Now we had a new wrinkle in our sentence study. I knew my students could write similes, but could they write an extended simile that showed me as much about the speaker or thinker as it showed about the subject? Here are some of the best results:
She smiled at the person she loved, her rainbow on rainy days, the soothing soft music as the heavy droplets of water splashed against the outdoor world; as long as her rainbow was there, she did not have to worry about the storm outside.
She scratches away at the surface of your patience like a dog wanting to go outside except that the door can be repaired but your patience never returns.
The chalk moved across the board like a rabbit being chased when dogs are so close they are in biting distance, but they let it go so they can enjoy the fear in its eyes.
The first two examples definitely convey detail about characters’ relationships with each other, and the third matches Bradbury’s in its sinister tone. At the time of our “aha!” analysis lesson, I could tell that some students were skeptical about our interpretations or how much could be gleaned from just one sentence, but this early sentence study and close reading has made them feel much more comfortable with passage analysis as we have continued our novel study.
Certainly not every sentence study should turn into a longer lesson in analysis, but here are some other ways to link a fantastic writing workshop technique with close reading and analysis.
- Nancy Dean’s Voice Lessons: Classroom Activities to Teach Detail, Diction, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone is a wonderful collection of passages from classic and contemporary literature with accompanying questions to prompt analysis. A colleague recommended the book a few years ago, and I have used it often to teach analysis or draw students’ attention to some of literature’s subtler features. The passages Dean uses in her book could be great sentence studies, too! I’ve used the book with my IB classes, but as I write this blog, I’m thinking perhaps I should try a passage or two with my freshmen!
- Use a sentence from a story or novel your class is reading for a sentence study; then, challenge students to write a story that begins with the sentence they wrote in their notebooks. If they spend a little time analyzing the sentences they created, they might discover that some characters and conflicts are already waiting for them.
- Consider asking students to find a mentor sentence during each (or maybe every other) reading assignment; the assignment may lead to more active reading and greater attention to the writer’s craft. You could make sharing the mentor sentence an “entrance slip” activity for class the next day.
Have you had any great “aha!” moments lately? Put any new spins on the sentence study? Have you found any sentences that demand to be shared? We’d love to hear from you! Please tweet me @msjochman or reply in the Comments section below.