It was the last period of the day when I entered the writing lab, and to say that the thirty-two sophomores slumped in desks and computer chairs looked bored would be an understatement. Images of Salvador Dali’s soft watch paintings drifted through my mind as I scanned the room.
The writing teacher began class with a set of call backs:
Teacher: How do we create characters?
Students: We use proper nouns.
Teacher: How do we create settings?
Students: We use proper nouns
These sing-song call backs continued – using the same two questions and answers – for about five minutes (It felt like five hours.). Then the students were told to pass their homework assignments to the front of the class.
The teacher shuffled the papers and read each one, stopping occasionally to call on random students to make comments or to ask questions.
You must be saying to yourself, “What’s so spectacular about this lesson? Nothing has impressed me so far.”
What made this lesson so remarkable was the quality of the writing. The first opening line was Mick Savage sprinted to the entrance of the Centennial Middle School, but the door was already locked. Immediately, my curiosity was piqued and I began to formulate questions: Why was Mick sprinting? Was he late for school…again? Was he going to a dance but arrived just minutes after administrators had locked the doors? Maybe he was a starter for the basketball team and would soon be banging desperately on the door because the game was about to begin. Perhaps he was just hoping to grab the door as it was closing so he didn’t have to wait to be buzzed in.
As each paper was read, I noted that the characters were interesting, the plots were believable, and the conflicts were riveting. When the bell rang, I couldn’t wait to ask the teacher what his secret was for getting such impressive narratives from such a disaffected group.
He told me, “A number of studies have shown that it takes 20 repetitions to transfer information into short-term memory and 40 repetitions to transfer information into long-term memory. I share this information with my students so that they understand the purpose of the call backs. Then, I randomly select students to respond to the writings in order to get students to think like state judges – the ones who will be scoring their drafts at the end of the year. Students catch on quickly with this method, but it’s not until they see their own writings (and grades) improve, that they’re really convinced.”
If I didn’t hear the writings myself, I would have never believed this strategy could have produced such extraordinary results.
Here is an introductory lesson that will get students started writing thought-provoking and action-packed stories.
Step 1: Ask students to brainstorm colorful character names and places from text and film like J.K. Rowling’s Draco Malfoy/Slytherin or Suzanne Collins’ Effie Trinket/District 12.
Here is a link to a five-minute, teaching writing podcast that explains how to help students design colorful characters: http://janiceannemalone.podbean.com/2011/11/27/creating-unforgettable-characters/
Step 2: Tell students to select one name and one setting from these lists (These words will become springboards for their narratives.), and have them write for ten minutes.
Seneca High School
Guenther’s Auto Repair
Bobby’s Bar and Grill
Here are two notebook pages featuring Cosmo Finklebean and Latisha Wright from San Deigo Junior High in a paired writing activity:
Step 3: Have volunteers share their stories, stopping from time to time to ask random students to recall parts of the story they found most memorable.
Note: If you absolutely hate the prewriting part of writing, here’s the secret for blowing right past it and diving straight into the drafting part: just make up great character names, drop them into believable settings, and the story will practically write itself! Throw in an unexpected time (8:23 instead of 8:00) along with any color at all and no judge (even a hard-to-please one) will ever know.
Add callback sessions along with random critiquing to this exercise, and see if you experience similar results.
Try Me Lesson
Here is a free lesson and interactive handout that you can use several times during the year when teaching writing to help students understand the importance of using specific rather than general words in their writings: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Snapshot-Lesson.
There are also 50 free lessons (along with teacher directions, student directions and Common Core State Standards) available at http://pinterest.com/elaseminars/prompts-photos/
When students master the art of using proper nouns to enliven their writings, consider checking out my favorite narrative unit of all time entitled, “Make Your Characters Jump Off the Page.” You can watch the introduction to this unit in action at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7DLZRCK310 .
Now, here’s a question for you: What is one easy writing strategy that you use to spice up your own writing or one strategy your students use to add interest to their writings?
Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.
About the author: Janice Malone is a teacher, seminar leader and owner of ELA Seminars. For more of her story, visit her website www.ELAseminars.com, and check out over 100 free lessons she has posted on Pinterest http://pinterest.com/elaseminars/.