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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3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

 

How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

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

-Karla

 

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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Watch Us on #theEdCollabGathering!

What a thrill it was to go LIVE this morning with #theEdCollabGathering to chat about Notebook Time and the ways it moves our student writers forward through play and discovery!

You can view our session here, on The Educator Collaborative’s Gathering site, or here on YouTube!

 

You can get all of our materials by clicking Presentations link in our menu and choosing #theedcollabgathering 4.2.16.

Thanks so much to everyone who made such an amazing day possible! Check out our session as well as the other incredible FREE PD that was offered all day long! We’ll be watching with our department during lunches this week!

 

#TheEdCollabGathering: Unearthing Discovery & Play

Did you know that on April 2, Chris Lehman and the generous geniuses at The Educator Collaborative are giving away a whole day of brilliant, free PD that you can watch from home in your jammies? 

We would love to have you join Allison and me from 11-12pm as we talk about bringing play back to the secondary English classroom through Notebook Time.  Here’s a post we wrote for The Educator Collaborative and a little bit of what you can expect in our session! 

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.21.15 PM.pngEvery year, on the first day of school, we end class by handing a Post-It note to each student and inviting them to pose an anonymous question — about our class, about our outside-of-school lives, about us as teachers, about anything they would like.

They are timid at first, wondering if the free and open invitation is real. Then, after a few moments, they begin pouring out their wonderings. And many of these wonderings are fears:

“How much writing will we do this year?”

“Are you a hard grader?”

“Will writing count as a big portion of our grade in this class?”

“How do you want me to write?”

“What kind of writing do you like?”

Somehow, somewhere in their education, they have learned that writing has a formula that is regulated by a series of invisible checklists. They have learned that writing is black or white, right or wrong. And they have learned that those metrics change teacher to teacher.

And have you read the writing by these same students? It’s careful. Strategic. Stilted. Lifeless. Inauthentic.

This isn’t what we want for our student writers. We want them to be daring explorers and brave pioneers of their own experiences and ideas. We want them to take on new territory, experiment with words, even take a risk that doesn’t pan out every once in awhile.  In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald Murray asserts that “behind each writing purpose is the secret excitement of discovery: the word, the line, the sentence, the page that achieves its own life and its own meaning. The first responsibility of the writing teacher is to [help students] experience this essential surprise” (8).

Read more on The Educator Collaborative Blog! 

Sentence Study to Textual Analysis — an Aha! moment

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 3.15.13 AMIn 2014, I attended Alison and Rebekah’s presentation at NCTE in Washington, DC, and left buzzing about so much of what they shared, especially sentence studies. For reluctant writers like my freshmen, a sentence study is a great way to ease into creative writing or new sentence styles. The  thought of writing a paragraph sometimes paralyzes them, but a sentence they can handle.

As my freshmen study fiction, I’ve been challenging myself to find interesting sentences from our short stories and novels for sentence studies. Recently, a Notebook Time sentence study of a passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 evolved into a class-wide close reading and character analysis.

I use Notebook Time to start my classes, and Allison’s and Rebekah’s early posts at Moving Writers helped me to organize Notebook Time and keep my daily prompts varied. I began class two weeks ago with these two sentences:
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Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I spent an average of 270 minutes per week with any given class, I was using about half of those minutes just on vocabulary instruction.  Reading instruction, whole-class literature, independent reading, and writing were all squeezed into the other half. My vocabulary instruction was amazing — and my students actually loved it and looked forward to it — but it was the core of my class, and that didn’t feel right either.

After diving into writing workshop with my students, I’ll be honest, I ditched explicit vocabulary instruction altogether. I didn’t know how to do it well and do it efficiently. I quoted studies that say, “Students get the best vocabulary instruction by simply reading”, and I left it at that. A third paltry solution.

Today, I am not going to give you a list of vocabulary activities — you can easily find those on your own, and there are lots of good ones out there! (Again, check out Janet Allen’s books! She is brilliant and her work is suitable for any grade level.). What I want to offer you instead is a brief look at what we know works in vocabulary instruction and a handful of  ideas for how you can build this instruction into our current writing instruction, so that students don’t simply understand the words they read but can also use them effectively to improve their writing.
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Summer Mentor Text Countdown — Week 3

Our students use multiple mentor texts constantly throughout the writing process — from planning all the way through publication. But our students also encounter daily mentor texts as they play with words and ideas in notebook time, our amped-up, mentor-text-based bell ringer.

These mentor texts are very different from the ones we use in our genre or technique writing studies, but in many ways, these mentor texts are the ones that make those habits of mind possible later in the writing process.

We think so highly of notebook time and the way it inspires student writing, that we have dedicated an entire chapter to it in our new book, Writing with Mentors (Heinemann, September 3, 2015).

Today, as we countdown our most-popular posts about mentor texts, we give you a little preview of notebook time and why we do it.

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Mentor Text Monday: Engaging Students with HUMANS OF NEW YORK

Mentor Text:  Humans of New Yorkblog and book by Brandon Stanton

Also: LIttle Humansbook by Brandon Stanton

Writing Techniques:

  • Effective interviewing
  • Fusing images and text
  • Concision & drilling down to the essentials

Background:

While I’m off, I am dreaming of the mentor texts and units of study that will fill my second semester when I return to school. One text that keeps popping up is Humans of New York, a popular storytelling blog-turned-book by photographer Brandon Stanton. On his blog, Stanton features a photograph of someone he encounters on the streets of New York. The photo is accompanied by the subject’s brief response to an intimate, probing question posed by Stanton. Both the portrait and the accompanying quotation capture something truthful — often raw — and essential about the subject.  The result is captivating, as evidenced by Stanton’s millions of followers and imitators around the world.

Beyond the interesting visuals and quotations that will capture students’ attention and the blog’s huge relevance and popularity, one of the greatest  things about Stanton’s work in the context of a classroom is that he is neither professional journalist nor professional photographer. In a way, he’s just like our students. While his work is great fodder for mentor text work, this fact makes him a great mentor for our writers as they uncover his process and become inspired by his craft. Continue reading

Notebook Time: What It Is & Why We Do It


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Rebekah and I often often tweet ideas for notebook time, and recently many of you have been asking us to explain it and show how it fits into the workshop.

Put simply, notebook time is an opportunity for students to play in their notebooks with different ideas, information, and genres. In our classrooms, notebook time occurs at the beginning of class as a prelude to the minilesson and writing/conferring that will happen later. It usually lasts between 4 and 6 minutes, leaving 5-15 minutes for the writing lesson and 20+ minutes for writing and conferring in our 46 minute block.

Notebook Time Invitations

We learned about notebook time from Penny Kittle at the Central Virginia Writing Project last November. Penny talked about using notebook time to help kids think and write from information. For example, she brings in the Harper’s Index and asks students to choose one statistic and write from it. “If you bring in really interesting information,” she said, “kids want to write from it.”

After Penny planted this seed, we brainstormed all the other kinds of information we might bring to students at the beginning of class to inspire thinking and writing. We call these Notebook Time Invitations.

Sentence Study – Invite students to mimic a well crafted sentence found in your own reading or class texts.

Adaptable Poems – Invite students to mimic the structure of a poem or to use the first line as a starting point.

Raw Data – Invite students to examine raw data/statistics, using the following guiding questions: What do you see/not see? What does it say/not say? What kinds of writing might bubble up from this data?

Quickwrite Inspiration – Invite students to explore the answer to a question or prompt.

Spoken Word – Invite students to watch a spoken word artist perform a poem and mimic the structure of the poem or use the first line as a starting point.

Notebook Seeds – Invite students to “go shopping” in their own notebooks for ideas/seeds. (Kittle, CVWP PD, November 2013)

Our old post Sentence Study with Anna Quindlen will give you a good sense of how to conduct notebook time in the early days until students are able to work independently with little introduction or instruction.

Selecting Invitations for Notebook Time

With so many options for notebook time, how do we select invitations? Below I’ve outlined several possibilities that have worked for us in the past.

Possibility: Choose invitations that correspond to the current unit of study with the thought that students might be able to generate work during this time that could feed their current writing.

Possibility: In the last week or so of a study, give students a sneak preview of the next unit of study by choosing notebook time invitations that correspond to that genre or technique.

Possibility: The themes of notebook time do not have to correspond with your current unit of study at all. Mix and match types and genres to remind students that writers play inside and outside of their work all the time.

Possibility: If your students are engaged in back-up work, notebook time might be an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for their writing “side projects.”

Possibility: Invite students to share their own ideas for notebook time. Pass around a monthly calendar and have students sign-up for a day. Students could email you their NBTI the day/night before.

Possibility: Tie notebook time to instruction by inviting students to reread and revise for an extra two minutes. Establish the previous day’s lesson as the “revision focus.”

Does Notebook Time Really Work?

In my experience, I can point to notebook time as the sole factor in my students’ increasing appetites for writerly play and risk-taking. And the invitations work so well because they are just that: invitations. We invite students to experiment. “See what comes up in the next four minutes,” we say. We invite them to share an idea, a line, the whole thing at the end of the four minutes. (Sometimes they beg for additional minutes). We invite them to write without evaluation. (We don’t grade NBTI). We simply invite them to “keep their hands moving for four minutes.” The stakes are low. The sense of possibility is high.

It’s rare that we catch a student just sitting there, wasting away this time. But if we do–and it’s not a pattern–we allow it. Notebook time is an invitation to write, and sometimes to write, we have to pause, pens perched above the notebook, eyes staring into the abyss of the white page…and just think.

Below you’ll find one week’s worth of notebook time invitations! Please leave a comment below or tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 to share students’ responses or your experience with notebook time this week!

Notebook Time: Week at a Glance

Monday – Sentence Study: “I didn’t want” from The Fault in Our Stars

Tuesday – Raw Data: A Brief History of Cool

Wednesday – Adaptable Poem: “Work Boots: Still Life”

Thursday – Quickwrite Inspiration: Tell me about your mother’s hands. Go.

Friday – Spoken Word: “Spelling Father”

Rebekah and I have collected all of our favorite NBTIs in our Mentor Text Dropbox. Click on Notebook Time, and search through the different categories for inspiration! Please shoot us an email if you have a NBTI to share, and we’ll gladly add it to our collection.

–Allison