YA Sentence Study Snapshot: We Were Liars

ds are the luckiest.

Text: 
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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

 

 

 

Audience:

Later middle school – high school (Perhaps 7-12?)

Book Talk:

Every summer, members of the incredibly wealthy Sinclair family gather on a private island. Everything appears to be perfect — perfect children, perfect relationships, plenty of money. But, of course, you know that things are almost never the way they appear from the outside. This book takes place over two years in Cadence’s life as she tries to piece together what happened two summers ago when she had a mysterious accident and most of her memories were wiped away. What was the cause of the accident? What really happened? And what secrets is this family trying to protect? This book is part Gossip Girl, part mystery, and completely a page turner that will suck you in as you — and Cadence — try to put all the pieces together.

Sentence Study:

“It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.

It does’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.”

This passage can help writers …

  • Use repetition effectively (specifically anaphora, if you want to throw in a fun literary term!)
  • Write using symbols
  • Make a dramatic shift.

Together, the class might notice

  • The repetition of “It doesn’t matter” at the beginning of each sentence.
  • The repetition of the word “desperately” in the last sentence — this kind of repetition feels different than the anaphora of “it doesn’t matter”.
  • The dramatic figurative language — “divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so they hardly beat without a struggle”
  • Symbolism of credit card bills and pill bottles to represent problems and pain within the family.
  • The single-sentence paragraph at the end of this passage that creates a twist

Invite students to try it by saying …

In this passage, Lockhart is describing a family. And certainly we can use these techniques to describe a group of people. But we could use these techniques in any piece of writing where we want to strongly emphasize an idea (using anaphora) and then twist that idea (by using a different kind of repetition, a separate, short paragraph, and a surprise). In your notebook, either devise a new description in which you try these techniques, or, better yet, find a place in your notebook work that could benefit from emphasis and a dramatic twist. Try it out. 

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

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YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Everything, Everything

ds are the luckiest.Today’s snapshot comes from Katie Stuart (@KatieStuart10) who teaches 9th grade English and 11th and 12 grade electives at Windham High School in Windham, NH. She previously taught at Windham Middle School and Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.  She earned her B.A. in English and M.A.T. in Secondary English from the University of New Hampshire.  

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Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Audience:

High School

Book Talk:

Imagine being a teen who is allergic to the world.  Maddy cannot leave her specially designed, air-lock protected house for fear of germs that might kill her. When smart, funny Olly moves in next door, they quickly become intrigued with each other.  This book is written in the style of a diary and is a fast read. 

Sentence Study:

“Then I see him.  He’s tall, lean, and wearing all black: black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely.  He’s white with a pale honey tan and his face is starkly angular.  He jumps down from his perch at the back of the truck and glides across the driveway, moving as if gravity affects him differently than it does the rest of us.”

This Passage Can Help Writers: 

  • Describe a person’s appearance in a way that communicates something about his or her personality
  • Use a colon to introduce a list
  • Vary sentence length
  • Play with repetition

Together, the Class Might Notice …

  • Yoon starts with a short, punchy sentence.
  • The colon is used to introduce a list
  • Each item in the list repeats the adjective that was used in the first clause
  • The third sentence is shorter and contrasts all the “black” in the second sentence
  • The last sentence describes how the person does something, not just how he look
  • The last sentence uses figurative language,  the simile “as if”

Invite Students to Try It By Saying …

There are many times we might describe someone in writing — sure, in fiction like Nicola Yoon. But we might also describe a person when writing a profile, a memoir, a poem, a personal essay. Try on the techniques we noticed here: the colon to introduce a list, the repetition, the description of how, and the figurative language. Use them to try your hand at describing a person who is important to you. It can be anyone you want, a real or fictional person. It could be your dog. See if this mentor text can help you describe a person.

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: A Long Walk to Water

No matter how much we try, none of us can do it all; there simply aren’t enough hours in the classroom. So, whenever possible, I try to double-dip — pulling the learning from one area of our work to another. 

And that’s exactly my aim in this new column. To feed our students’ book love, we need to prepare book talks. We also know that the mentor-text centered sentence study that we do during Notebook Time often provides some of students’ richest writing experiences. This is exactly where I like to do one of my favorite double-dips:  sentence study and book talk in one. 

In this column, I’ll pull sentence studies from young adult and middle grades texts — give you a little book talk, show you the sentence study, and walk you through the way you might use it with students today! Let’s get started! 

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Audience:

Middle grades

Book Talk:

A Long Walk to Water combines fiction and non-fiction to tell two stories in Southern Sudan: the fictional story of Nya, an eleven-year-old in 2008 who must walk for 8-10 hours a day to fetch water for her family,  and the true story of Salva, and eleven-year-old in 1985 who is forced to flee home because of war and violence and walk to Ethiopia. Each chapter shares a part of Nya’s story and a part of Salva’s story. Students like trying to piece together how these two narratives will speak to one another by the end of the book.  A Long Walk to Water tells a simple story but asks big questions: How can we maintain hope and perseverance in the face of the unimaginable? What can one person do to make a difference? What is really needed to live? At it’s heart, it’s a survival story.

Sentence Study: 

I came to this text as the first in our series because A Long Walk to Water is the middle grades selection for the Global Read Aloud this year. Here’s the sentence I worked on with my students:

“There was always so much life around the pond: other people, mostly women and girls, who had come to fill their own containers; many kinds of birds, all flap and twitter and caw; herds of cattle that had been brought to the good grazing by the young boys who looked after them.” 

Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Diction, Syntax, and the Gray Lady

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One of my greatest hopes as a writing teacher is that my students will become conscious of the ways small moves can subtly shift the impact their words have on readers.  Unfortunately, what sounds easy in theory often ends up being cumbersome in the execution.  We discuss the significance of diction and syntax in their writing–one of my favorite mini-lessons is exploring the minefield of connotational problems when choosing synonyms for “beautiful”–but when it comes to closely examining the real impact of tiny moments in writing, I find that our conversations are too few and far between.

When we encounter a particular turn of phrase in a text, we might stop and chat about it, but there’s always something inherently hypothetical about the discussions.  “Why do you THINK this essayist chose such a strong verb?” Or “How would the impact have been different if Coates had chosen THIS phrasing?”  

When it comes to feedback on their own writing, I find such conversations to be far too infrequent as well.  Conferences about small moments and individual moments of phrasing tend to give way to larger-scale concerns like paragraph organization or problematic use of evidence or the like.  

In other words, my kids don’t talk shop about the actual raw power of words and sentences nearly often enough.

Enter Twitter!  Specifically, the fascinating, robotic magic of “Editing the Gray Lady”.  You’ll find this delightfully indifferent twitter feed at  @nyt_diff   . Continue reading

Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

First Day of School: Six Word Stories with a Twist

Today’s guest post is from one of Rebekah & Allison’s colleagues, Maria Bartz. Maria  is an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, VA.  She loves a clean white board for spontaneous think tank sessions with her inspiring colleagues, a fully charged laptop to explore the ever-growing world of educational technology, and  big circle of passionate teenagers engaged in thought-provoking discussion.

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First-day six word memoirs from Maria’s students

Planning for the first day is a balancing act.  I want it to be fun, unique, and a truthful preview of what the school year will look like in my room.  For the past six years of teaching, plans for the first day were a mix of icebreakers, quick review of the syllabus, and writing some sort of introduction letter, which they would finish for homework.  It just never felt genuine or much like my classroom.  

This year, I decided to make it truer to my class: I wanted them writing.  And not just an introduction letter that skims the surface of who they are and what they like to do. Still, it’s tough to get students studying mentor texts and writing a finished piece in only 25 minutes.  I was up for the challenge.

My secret weapon came in the form of six word stories….with a twist.  In past years, I have used Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story to open the conversation about intentional word choice: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  While this is still one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, I wanted this activity to act as an introduction to the process of studying mentor texts as well as a gateway into the students writing about themselves in a personal way.

So instead of asking them to create a fictional six word story, it had to be a six word memoir.  Here’s how the class went:

  • Define “memoir”

I define the word “memoir” for my students and explain that memoirs can come in all lengths–a couple pages or an entire book.  I then tell them that they are going to write their memoir in only six words (listen for the gasps!).

  • Study  one six-word memoir together.

I preface the reading by saying, “This writer was asked, ‘If you had to tell me about your life in six words, what would you say?’ This is the memoirist’s response: ‘Ask me again in a month.’”

Independently, students respond to these questions: What is the tone, the feeling exuding from the sentence? How do you know?

I let students share with their group and then share to the class. Students notice that the word “month” is an indicator of hopefulness or despair, depending on how they perceive the length of a month to be.  Students note that the word “ask” is friendly or intrusive, depending on how they interpret being asked personal questions. We only spend a few minutes discussing this, as they quickly grasp the power of each word in the sentence.

  • Study more mentor texts

Next, we read ten examples of six word memoirs (amazing examples here). I chose IMG_1531examples that varied in topic, tone, and style and that resonated with high school students. Here are some of my favorites: this and this and this and this  They are unintimidating and clever; students have even commented, “I like these” or “This is cool.”

Students choose their favorites from the list of ten and work through the same questions about tone–what is the tone?  How do you know?  To that question, I add “What makes that sentence special–is there a play on words? Is there a creative use of punctuation?”  Some circle or highlight words, others don’t. Since this is a 25 minute class, I will save that discussion for another day.  My goal today is just to have them read sentences thoughtfully.  Due to my time constraints, we don’t share our thoughts on our favorite sentences; although, if the class was longer, I would ask for volunteers to share their findings.

  • Students take a turn

I then tell the students that it’s their turn–that they will be writing their own six word memoirs.  Some eyes widen, some let out a groan for having to do more work on the first day of school, but most are already spinning the wheels in their heads.  

For the sake of those who are not as eager to write, I offer up myself as tribute and share the drafts of my own six word memoir.  I explain why I made any major or minor adjustments in each draft and show my final draft written cleanly on a sentence strip.  This is intended to ease their anxieties, allow them to get to know me personally, and illustrate the power of revision.

At this point, there is about five minutes left in class.  I coach them along, asking rhetorical questions that could spark an idea–”What is going on in your life right now?  What is your life motto?  What are your hopes for the future?”  Some students will write six words immediately.  Others reread the mentor sentences and have zero words written when the dismissal bell rings.  Homework is to finish the first draft of their six word memoirs.

Without much dawdling, this took one 25-minute class period.

The next class, as the warm up, I ask the students to reread their original six word memoirs–does it reflect the tone you intended?  Does anything need tweaking?  Once they are satisfied, they will write their final drafts on sentence strips–no names required.

IMG_1532That afternoon, I staple all the memoirs on our bulletin board to publish their writing.  When students return to class, they are given three votes (pencil hash marks) for their favorite ones; we applaud those who got the most votes but keep the winners anonymous.

Students love reading each other’s memoirs and seeing their own work displayed.  I’ve even had a few students submit a new six word memoir, feeling the inspiration of their peers’ and their own writing.  We will refer to this activity throughout the year when I introduce the concepts of mentor texts, word choice, and taking risks.

It is my favorite first day yet.  

(For another beginning-of-the-year writing idea using six word memoirs, check out Stefanie’s post from last week!)

What new experiments are you trying on the first day this year? What are your tried-and-true favorite ways to getting students writing from day one? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Maria @MsBartz.

Zen Teaching

Adobe Spark (43)

Now that it’s officially August, I’m starting to feel what I suspect many teachers feel this time of year—the all too familiar mix of anxiety and anticipation. While I use this time to cross off items on my summer bucket list—beach getaways, sticky popsicles, and poolside naps—I also use summer to reflect on all the things that could have gone better last year and the changes, big and small, I can make starting on day 1. I wonder about the students who will fill my classroom—and my life—in just a few short weeks. Who will they be? What will they be like? And how will I reach them?

These are just a few of the questions that go through my mind as I plan for next year. As I flip through pages of pedagogy books and teacher websites, my notebooks team with ideas. Ideas for independent reading, prompts for notebook writing, and of course, lists and lists of mentor texts. Yet while discovering new ideas energizes me, it also overwhelms. And I wonder—maybe you can have too much of a good thing.

Too much of a good thing. When I first started teaching, the hardest part was always feeling like I didn’t have enough—enough support, enough materials, enough ideas. I’m so thankful for the mentors who nurtured me during those early years. Now, fifteen years later, it’s not a matter of having too few ideas but too many. Even a cursory glance through favorite Twitter hashtags, teacher blog sites, and online workshops speaks to the abundance of ideas in the connected educator world—and to the generosity of so many talented teachers who share their work with open hearts.

So as I enter another year of teaching, and with so much rich material out there—how can we make sense of it all?  Continue reading