There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?
My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.
After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.
So, here’s what we did…
First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?
I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After our routine writing, turn and talk, and share out, I asked students to post their best responses on the board. Here’s what they said makes sentences beautiful…
Next, I asked them to go digging.
I gave students 5-6 minutes to thumb through the text for examples of “beautiful language,” and then write down a few examples. We then went around the room, student to student reading aloud our beautiful sentences.
Here are some some very recognizable, albeit beautiful examples, that emerged in class:
- “All time is all time.”
- “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
- “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
- “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
- “The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.”
- “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
- “The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”
After that, we read like readers and then read like writers.
Some guiding questions that helped:
- What do you notice?
- What feeling, idea, or event is the sentence conveying?
- How does the writer do it?
- Is there anything significant about connotation?
- Are literary or rhetorical devices present?
- Is there repetition?
- What is special, exciting, powerful, or summoning about this sentence?
Then, we built our list of mentor text “noticings.”
From students of Room 729…
Finally, we did some writing of our own.
I write about this often, but this is the beauty of literature as mentor texts. You read the literature, you practice close reading, you read like a writer, and you try your hand at crafting your own beautiful sentences by making concious choices. I tell my students over and again that this is how we become more mature, sophisticated, and intentional writers.
For this portion of this activity, I gave students a series of abstract words and asked them to conjure up a sentence or two that somehow conveyed the feeling or idea of the word. As always, I asked my students to let the mentors be their guide and to use their list of “noticings” to inspire their work.
With this scaffolding and rule of thumb in mind, we wrote about WARMTH, about HOPE, about DESPAIR, about SATISFACTION, and about INEVITABILITY.
Here are a few beautiful sentences written by a few of my very lovely students (who I am grateful to for allowing me to share here):
For Warmth by Jillian C: Warmth is something that cannot always be found under blankets, or in front of heaters, or between the arms of another. Sometimes it cannot be sold or borrowed or stolen. So ignite.
For Hope by Madison B: The potential was proven when all at once, humanity became whole.
For Despair by Sydney B: At night she navigated the den that was her mind; the wolves would arrive soon. It’s a pack mentality.
Reflections on the lesson:
– I happen to be teaching Slaughterhouse Five now, but this activity can be done with any text anywhere. There’s something fun and interesting about that for me. I suspect there’s beautiful language in unsuspecting places, and if we can get students to notice that and pay attention, that’s a win for the good guys.
– Although “beautiful” is a subjective term (in the eye of the beholder and all that), this lesson forces students’ hands in categorizing and articulating beauty in language, a frequent sentiment in AP Literature.
– This lesson hit the head and the heart. One of my favorite, favorite lines from Slaughterhouse Five that I find particularly moving, especially now, says…
“What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once…they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Ain’t that the stuff?
How do you celebrate and call attention to beautiful language in your classroom? I’d love to find out.
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