Last week I began a series on scaffolds for helping students read like writers. To read like a writer is to appreciate what another writer has made while exploring possibilities for your own work. When students are surrounded by excellent writing and have been taught how to mine that writing for craft, their writing toolbox expands and their sense of possibility enlarges. But this way of reading like a writer does not come naturally for many students who have been schooled to read only like readers and sadly, who are not often enough invited to play and tinker and make their own writing.
So we owe our student writers really good instruction in this area, and ample time to practice reading like a writer until it becomes second nature.
Last week we explored the very first step in the four-step protocol:
- Notice something about the craft.
- Name the craft.
- Come up with a theory for why the writer used this craft.
- Try this craft in your own work.
We looked at five exercises that can help craft “pop” for writers like the Magic Eye illusions of the 90s. Many students are able to spot craft in writing–their eyes see a pattern or discern the way a sentence is built–but the next step, the naming part, presents a major barrier for them. When they don’t have the words to name what they see, their observations becomes fuzzy and lost.
It might be tempting to hand these students a pre-made packet of terminology, but these kinds of “learning tools” are overwhelming and can provide major blocks to learning and reading with a sense of possibility for one’s own work. These packets may also limit the creativity of the writer who spies something beautiful in a piece of writing that has not yet been named by anyone. So how can we help students name what they see without a pre-made list of vocabulary words?
5 Scaffolds for Helping Students Name Craft
1. Use student-friendly language to match what students see.
Imagine you are studying this sentence from Patricia MacLachlan’s Baby with your sixth graders:
My mother stood with her hands up to her face, shocked.
Some of your students may be struck by the placement of the word shocked at the end of the sentence. Even the most inexperienced readers may sense that this is an unusual pattern: they have the English language rhythm of adjective-noun ingrained in them. Perhaps they’ll even make the connection to Spanish class, where most adjectives come after the nouns they modify. When you ask them what they notice, one of your students volunteers, “Shocked is weird at the end. Like it’s out of place.”
Now it’s your turn to help turn this wonderful observation into something more compact, something the class can use to label this craft move over and over again. Using his language as a guide, you might offer, “Okay, let’s call that move Out-of-Place Adjectives.”
This scaffold requires you to think on your feet, but you won’t be helpless if you listen to your students and use their words to help them name what they cannot say yet. Consider archiving all of the terms you devise together on a series of posters, or in a class glossary (more to come on this in a future post!).
2. Send students on a craft hunt.
Once you and your students have practiced naming with creative, student-generated language craft moves across a few different texts, you can send them out into the print world with a list of these moves to see what else they can find.
At the beginning of a blogging unit, my 8th graders used the following list of craft moves to explore blog writing. They were were asked to annotate a few short blogs for these techniques:
- Information-adding colon
- Whispering parenthesis
- Creative subtitle
- The drive-the-school-marm-crazy sentence (sentences that start with a conjunction!)
- A magic three (rhythmic sentences that have three distinct parts to them)
- Anything else that interests you as a writer
As you can see, the items on this “list” are a far cry from literary terms packets: they are creative, descriptive, and student-generated. The last item on the list is open: students are invited to look for new craft moves and use the fun language of the proceeding vocabulary to inspire their own terminology.
3. Attribute moves to particular authors.
Another way of describing the craft moves we see over and over again, particularly within a single author’s oeuvre, is to use that author’s name to describe his or her most ubiquitous techniques. Let’s look at an example in the passage below. If you had to guess which popular young adult author wrote this sentence, who would you guess?
If I’d been the author, I would’ve stopped thinking about my microbiome. I would’ve told Daisy how much I liked her idea for Mychal’s art project, and I would’ve told her that I did remember Davis Pickett, that I remembered being eleven and carrying a vague but constant fear. I would’ve told her that I remembered once at camp lying next to Davis on the edge of a dock, our legs dangling over, our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood, staring together up at a cloudless summer sky. I would’ve told her that Davis and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.
The passage is from John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. (I wrote a YA Sentence Study post about it here.) If you’ve read any John Green at all, you’ll agree that this sentence is very John Green-y. It’s built around a repetitive pattern; the narrator’s voice is revealing, vulnerable, true; the sentence closes with a thematic discovery about life. And I’m betting that your students, especially if you have cultivated an independent reading-rich environment in your classroom, might guess John Green as well. They may not be able to say why it’s a John Green sentence, but they’ll feel it, and with your help they will be able to describe the style that makes it his.
I love this scaffold because it helps students describe author style while encouraging them to make connections between authors and look for craft patterns across texts. The next time they come across a sentence that feels John Green-y — one that has a vulnerable narrator, or rich repetition, or ends with a thematic punch, they can say, “Hey, that’s a John Green sentence,” and you’ll point to the poster in your room that you’ve made with a few bullet points describing his style to help give words to what they cannot yet say.
4. Invite students to make or build the craft they see.
I’ve been reading Angela Stockman’s Hack the Writing Workshop, and I’m so, so inspired. In this book Angela explores how letting kids use unconventional materials like legos, clay, and straw to build their ideas “bit by bit” can dissolve students’ print-resistance and break down creative barriers. As I write, a bin of Legos tumbles over in our family room
spreading colorful pieces everywhere, and I can’t help but wonder what might happen if we asked our students to build or make their craft noticings in order to give them a name. On page 136 of Hack the Writing Workshop Angela writes, “Print is just one modality, and many argue that it isn’t even the modality of the moment. Future-ready writers know how to use diverse mediums and modalities to inform, move, and call their readers to action. Does you writing workshop prepare them for this reality? I began inviting writers to switch mediums or modalities whenever they told me they were blocked. ‘Build what you don’t yet have words for,’ I suggested. ‘Sketch it. Paint it. Perform it. Dance out the conflict in your story.’ Every time, words began to flow in the wake of making.” After students build their ideas, Angela encourages them to label the tiny pieces of their creations; then students use those labels and descriptions to form phrases, and later sentences and paragraphs.
For instance, if a student were to build the Patricia MacLachlan Baby sentence above with a bunch of legos, she might create a tower of ten yellow Legos to represent the first ten words of the sentence, followed by one red Lego to represent the adjective that jumps out at her and seems out of place. How would this student then describe her Lego tower, and what words in that description might help her name the original craft move that inspired it?
5. Borrow a familiar vocabulary.
Our students are musicians. Skate boarders. Traceurs (had to look that one up! This is what you call a person who does parkour). Cooks. Ballerinas. Artists. Field hockey players. Jockeys. Gymnasts. Gamers. Basketball players. Our students love what they do and know the vocabularies of their passions inside and out.
Have your students make a list of the words that define their passions. For example, a dancer might list:
- de Cote
Battu is a term that refers to the “beating” of feet in the middle of a jump or step. What might your dancer discover if you invited her to find a sentence or passage that mimicked battu–perhaps a really long sentence followed by a short, punchy sentence in the middle (the beating of the feet), following by another long sentence? How might this dancer see craft through the lens of her passion?
Seeking and naming craft is a creative endeavor; terminology packets suck all the inspiration out of this process, leaving little room for a student to be inspired and consider possibilities for her own work. Still, you might be wondering, “But when do you introduce students to the actual terms?”
Even our highest achieving students need time and space to discover their own ways of naming the craft they see. But if you teach a test-based class where the terminology truly matters (like AP Language, for instance), then the answer is: in time. If you must use precise terminology, do it after students are practiced noticing and naming on their own terms.
But keep in mind that some of the most beautiful craft moves do not have a name. You will not find a label in your terminology packet to describe the gorgeous patterns your students have spotted and felt in their bones as they read.
I hope you’ll join me again in two weeks as we consider the third step in the RLAW protocol: helping students analyze craft moves and come up with a theory for why a writer has used a particular technique. In the meantime, please share your ideas for helping students name craft they do not yet have words for, and let me know if you try any of the ideas above!