Scaffolds for Helping Students Read Like Writers, Part IV (Trying the craft in your own work!)

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This whole scaffolding series has been building up to this last post. Everything we do to teach kids how to read like writers is in preparation for the last leap: trying the craft in your own work. In literature heavy classrooms, teachers may skip this step: The peak of literary analysis instruction is teaching students how to explain why a writer has made a specific choice. But there is a missed opportunity here and an essential shift that needs to be made. To skip over the invitation to play and tinker and try on craft is to rob our students of a powerful reading and writing experience: creation. Taking the raw ingredients of one’s reading experience and making something wholly new.

So we must crescendo to this last step of reading like a writer and invite our writers in. What are the best ways to encourage students to try on craft?  How do we cultivate a culture of play in writing beyond mere exercises and into the actual writers themselves?

1. Model, model, model

In my last post, I shared that modeling is perhaps the single best tool we have for supporting students’ craft work. I can’t think of another scaffold that is as effective as getting down on the students’ level, and thinking aloud about your writing as you shape and reshape it.

In the fourth step of reading like a writer, modeling may take a few forms. It may happen in a conference as you kneel beside a student, prop open your own notebook, and think aloud as you transfer bits of text from your head onto the page. It may happen in front of the whole class, your notebook under a document camera, writing silently for a bit, and then reflectively explaining some of your choices, or having students explain what they saw happening as you wrote.

Here’s what a little think aloud using the excerpt from The Girl on the Train might sound like:

I know this house by heart. I know every brick, I know the colour of the curtains in the upstairs bedroom (beige, with a dark-blue print), I know that the paint is peeling off the bathroom window frame and that there are four tiles missing from a section of the roof on the right-hand side.

One of the things I’m drawn to in this writing, something we talked about yesterday as we were theorizing about craft, is the nobody-else-has-noticed details, things like the color of the curtains, the peeling painted window frame. I also love the use of the whispering parenthesis–like the narrator is whispering to me–and I want to try this in my own work. There’s a small bit of writing in my memoir where I’m describing one of my childhood homes, focusing on the view of my room from my bed, which was my aunt’s bed from her childhood. I’m going to lift Hawkin’s first phrase here–“I know this house by heart,” to help me get started because I like how it puts the reader there immediately. Here I go… (then write silently for a bit as students watch).

I know this room by heart. I know where each thread has pulled loose in my cream carpet (from my cat whose nails are tree-climbing sharp), I know that the vent beneath my desk looks scary until you open it up and see the treasure stash I’ve stored there (notes to my friends, a few pieces of leftover Halloween candy, some diaries with working locks). I know the rip in the screen on the righthand window from the time I tried to…

Okay, so as I was writing. I decided to use her pattern of “I know, I know, I know” because it really kept me in the room and let me look around and see what I wanted to describe. I decided to start on the floor and move upward, kind of like how Hawkins started inside the bedroom and moved outward towards the roof tiles…

Do not underestimate the power of modeling craft work: It is the single most authentic tool we have for demonstrating the kind of thinking writers do to shape their ideas into well crafted writing.

2. Sentence Study (Notebook Time)

We have written oodles of posts on sentence study (and notebook time in general) on this blog; a quick search for sentence study here will yield plenty of resources for you! In short, sentence study is when you share a single sentence (or short passage) with your writers, and invite them to move through the four steps of reading like a writer. Focusing on just a little bit of text helps students zoom in at the craft level and see more. Sentence study can be completed quickly, in a ten-minute warm-up period, or, my preference, it can be explored bit by bit, phase by phase, over a week. I call this extended sentence study, and it looks like this:

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9th grade student’s 5-Day sentence study of a line from The Catcher in the Rye

Giving plenty of time to each step means slowing the process down and allowing students time in between days to “write in the air” or think outside of their notebooks about the work they are doing. This kind of slow craft work is my favorite.

3. “Find a strategic place”

This scaffold is really simple but effective because it’s short and sweet. After sentence study, or after a discussion about a specific craft move, invite your students to search through their notebooks to find a strategic place to apply that craft move in a piece of writing that already exists.

Removing the pressure of making a new piece of writing is sometimes the most encouraging and accessible invitation to play with craft. So, using The Girl on the Train example above, after studying this passage for craft, you might say:

We’ve noted her use of repetition, of the phrase “I know, I know, I know.” We also love her use of whispering parenthesis, and details that you’d only see if you were looking really, really closely, if you knew the place like the back of your hand. Can you go and find a place in your writing right now, to try on one of these moves? The repetition, the whispering parenthesis, or the tiny details? Let’s take 10-15 minutes to try this work, and we’ll come together and share afterwards.

4. Craft Chart

I shared this chart last week, but it’s just too good not to share it again!

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This chart collects a writer’s thinking throughout all phrases of reading like a writer; the last box helps her think about a place she might be able to use this craft move in her own writing. While it doesn’t require students to go and try the craft work immediately, the chart serves as a kind of repertoire of craft moves they might refer to as they are revisiting an old piece of writing or beginning to shape a newer draft into something more substantial and well crafted.  I love the fourth box — another place/text I have seen this craft — because it encourages students to remember craft they’ve seen from any text, including their own peers’ work!

5. Craft Glossary

Many of us have our students store their minilessons, writing ideas, and sometimes actual drafts in a writer’s notebook. Another possible addition to the WN is a glossary that collects craft language that students are learning as they read like writers. Rather than tracking craft by passage/example as in the Craft Chart above, the writer organizes entries by craft language, followed by examples, and musings about where the craft might work in their own pieces.

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Students can write the original work from which the sentence or craft move comes from, and their notebook page number where the sentence or craft moves appears in full. This reference system prevents the Glossary from becoming too long and unwieldy; instead students can turn to the page in their notebook for more information as needed.

6. Imitation Writing

When students play with craft, sometimes they take pieces of the writing they’ve been studying and incorporate those small moves into their work. Other times, they may want to closely imitate the writing in front of them to achieve a particular style or voice. Imitation writing is a form of craft play that can be a powerful scaffold to supporting students’ independent craft work; it can also be an end in and of itself. Here is a little bit of imitation work from David M, a ninth grader, after his study of various passages from the brilliant book The Book of Qualities by J. RuthGendler:

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You’ll notice that David has treated Gendler’s original piece as a kind of Madlib that provides patterns to fill with his own ideas. You’ll notice the rich craft of his writing, and how, even though he’s closely imitated Gendler’s style, there is still room for his own voice, his own personality here. After imitation work, students can “revise away from the imitation,” undoing/reshaping some of the patterns they’ve borrowed that aren’t working for them, feel awkward, etc. Always with imitation work, we want to teach our students to give credit to the writer and work somewhere in their own piece–here’s what David’s final would look like:


Inspired by “Confidence” by J. Ruth Gendler

Fanciness loves to drink tea…

7. Madlibs

In the example above, the Gendler excerpt became a sort of Madlib that David used to write his own metaphor for “fanciness.” You can teach your kids to do this–to create “madlibs” out of the writing they love and want to imitate. All you have to do is find passages rich with craft–in particular we love passages that have a sort of pattern to them, or heavy repetition/”chorus work”–take out the meat (the specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives), leaving the bone structure in tact, and invite your students to play. Here’s an example of a Madlib I created for the ever beautiful and haunting poem “Crossing Shoal Creek” by J.T. Ledbetter:

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The fourth and final step of reading like a writer is so important: it’s the solid bridge between our students’ reading and writing lives. It’s the invitation to play, to try on different voices and styles, to see what fits and feels right and exciting in your own work. It’s the invitation to be a part of a much larger community in which writers have been inspired by other writers since the beginning of time.

How else can we invite our students to try the craft they read and study? What has been effective in your classroom for encouraging students to experiment and play with different styles and voices?

Also, this:

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