A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

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…

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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…

 

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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. 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

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Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

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image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

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The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

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Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voices

Mentor Texts

You might like these mentors for teaching…

Voice and style

Personal narrative

Detail, imagery, and description

Literary analysis

Writing dialog

What I like about the mentors…

  • All four of these mentor texts have one thing in common — strong and unique voices that reach through the page.
  • Each mentor is vastly different from the other, but all rely on fresh and vivid details and descriptions.
  • They are all thought provoking on some level.

So, how do you find your voice if you didn’t know you were supposed to be looking for it?

The problem isn’t that students don’t have a voice, it’s that they don’t realize they’re not communicating their unique and individual personalities on paper. My students tend to fall into the trap of the academic writing style or what I like to call “sounding smart and using big words” because I think they think that’s what I want. 

Helping students find their own writerly voice is worthwhile and rewarding. A strong and unique voice and style moves points on rubrics–separating the good essays from the great, the interesting from the intriguing, and the satisfactory from the sophisticated. But helping students develop voice isn’t all about the rubric and the score, it’s about empowering young adults to explore, create, and craft original and thoughtful writing that they can be proud of and to use their voices to express themselves and their ideas for the many years ahead of them. 

For me, voice is a strong indicator of a strong and creative thinker. I wonder if by simply allowing students to tap into their own unique voices, no matter the assignment, we get higher quality writing as a result. I’ve blogged before about some approaches I like to use to elevate student writing using repetition and narrative, and both of these activities encourage students to be intentional in their craft and approach. And Kelly has also written about teaching voice on the Moving Writers blog, which you can check out here.

But my motto for finding your writerly voice boils down to the 3 Ps: personality, passion, and persistence.

How to write a

  1. Write with personality.

I remember my mentor telling me that great student essays are conversational but not a conversation. I love this descriptor for students. Giving students permission to write in the voice in which they speak, describe, and tell stories is half the battle. Too often students are afraid to break out of formulaic structures, afraid of the perceived right way and the wrong way to write, and they are afraid of plain old failure.

Here’s one lesson to spark students’ curiosity about writing with personality:

  • Tell students they’re looking for the ways the writer conveys his or her unique voice.
  • Have them identify a short, interesting, and engaging passage from the mentor text of your choice.
  • Ask students what would sound similar or different if they were the ones narrating the passage. (For example, if my students were studying Holden Caulfield, they would probably say they’d never in a million years talk so much or use the word “phony.”)
  • Have students then write the passage in their own original voices, taking care to match the writer’s craft moves.

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