Thursday, June 8, 2017

Short Essays Responses To Elicit Critical Thinking and Concise Writing

     Brief essay responses to poetry and short fiction (or sections of longer works) make up the bulk of my academic writing lessons for ages 10-17. I do not believe that students always have to write the standard five-paragraph essay to convey their understanding of a piece of literature, or other art form. Quick "thematic paragraph responses" (as I call them) exercise students' writing skills by enriching the powers of conciseness and clarity of expression, and students who write these short analyses on a regular basis end up better prepared to take on full essays about longer forms of literature. While I never advocate "cookie-cutter" essay writing, I do provide my students with a mnemonic device--a silly musical allusion to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"--to ensure a thorough, yet concise analysis of a theme (a format that is also applicable to each body paragraph of an essay): "E I-E-I O" or "E I-E-I, I-E-I O" (the longer version is for more experienced students and deeper analyses, with its repetition of the middle I-E-I section). Here is an explanation of that musical memory-jogger:

 E=Establish topic/theme

 I=Illustrate with a quotation or specific example (introduced in its context)

 E=Explain what the illustration (above) shows the reader

 I=Interpret the Implications of that illustration (why it shows what it shows)

 O=Overall statement related to theme in a broader way 

     To illustrate this kind of lesson prompt, I am sharing, below, a fifteen-year-old young man's paragraph response to a poem that I wrote. I will share the actual poem that he analyzed AFTER the paragraph, to further illustrate something I emphasize with my high school students: write essays about literature as if the reader is unfamiliar with the subject work. That ensures the clearest analysis. Here is the student's written response:

Essay Paragraph Response to “Behind the Armor”
by Enan, age 15

            In the poem, “Behind the Armor,” author Susan L. Lipson describes two different kinds of people through the use of knights and wrestlers. The author writes, “Knights... they battle insecurity loneliness, and weakness.” Knights often wear armor in battle, and when knights face a problem, they deflect them with their armor. Previously in this poem, the author talks about how arrogance is like a faceguard and how meanness is their shield. Through this metaphor, she is trying to convey the message that some people are too cocky to ruin their image. So instead of confronting their problems, they deflect them, and therefore put others down so that they can forget about their own problems. Later in the poem, the author transitions to talking about wrestlers: “Wrestlers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with emotions, building thicker skin through baring it.” When wrestlers fight, they have no protection; they use their bare skin. Although it may be more painful, in the end, the wrestler will grow to deal with the pain better than a knight would. The author is telling us that confronting your problems will make you a tougher person. Rather than be knights who deflect emotions out of their lives, we should be wrestlers who deal with emotions and therefore become stronger.

     And here is the poem he was writing about:

     Behind the Armor
     by Susan L. Lipson

Such clouded knights,
        with their vision obstructed
        by the arrogance they wear as faceguards, 
        the aloofness they don as protective suits,
        and the meanness they carry as shields;
        they battle insecurity, fear,
        loneliness, and weakness— 
        unlike wrestlers engaged in 
        hand-to-hand combat with emotions,
        building thicker skin through baring it,
        from struggle to truce
        from pain to healing,
        from sweat to sigh to 
  enlightened daze.

     Were you able to understand Enan's analysis before even reading the poem? And now that you have read the poem, does his analysis seem credible? (It does to me, and since I am the poet, that should have some weight!)


Thursday, April 27, 2017

5th Graders Write About Stylistic Techniques in Nonfiction

           It's important to point out to students that writing style is as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. Simply providing facts is not enough to compel readers; the nonfiction author must provide memorable "word pictures" with sentences that show, rather than tell. Young writers who learn to notice and analyze specific word choices in everything they read will not only have a greater appreciation of the art of writing, but will also have a heightened awareness of the intentions behind words. Such an awareness enriches reading comprehension as well as writing skills.
          The following two short essay-style paragraphs by 10-year-old students used my "E I-E-I O" format* to examine the stylistic choices in a passage from the nonfiction book Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly.    
                                       *Establish, Illustrate, Explain, Interpret, Overall lesson/theme


Monday, April 3, 2017

Celebrating Spring with a Student's Poem

If We Lived Like a Bee
By Emma
Age: 10
(Written in response to the lyrics of my song, "If Everyone Lived Like the Tree")
Oh how sweet our lives would be,
If everyone lived like the bee.
Their whole life’s work they give away,
just to brighten up your day!
Bees spread pollen, make flowers grow,
buzz around, and create honeycomb.
We under-appreciate them every day,
so greet them with, “Namaste!”
If you take the time to reflect,
you will see the bees deserve respect.
After reading you’ll conclude,
We should thank the bees for food.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Faultless Personification: A Poetry Prompt

     After sharing a poem from Creative Kids magazine, "It's Not the Iron's Fault," by 15-year-old Joe Block, I asked 10-year-old Nathan to write his own personification poem featuring an object blamed for a person's errors. Nathan  immediately thought of a basketball getting blamed for a player's mistakes. I asked him to emulate the structure of Block's poem, which began with an iron pointing out its many attributes ("took the wrinkles out of your clothes"; "gave your clothes that special warmth"; and "made the clothes look as if they belonged to royalty") before the object poses questions to the human user of the iron about why she/he yells at the iron for ruining clothes, burning fingers, etc., when those problems arose from the user's misuse of, or neglect while using, the iron.

     Here is Nathan's poem, featuring a talking basketball:

It’s Not the Ball’s Fault
 by Nathan, age 10

So the next time you scream at me,
think about all that I did for you.

When there was a fifty-fifty chance to go in
in a tight game, I decided to go in.

I was also the one who gave you enough backspin to make
that basket you thought you would make.

So why do you scream at me when I don’t go through the net?

Remember, you were the one who passed the ball
too hard to your teammate.

And remember when you lost control of the ball
and someone stole it?
That was you who dribbled too hard.

You’re also the one that controls me,
who gives me backspin,
so when you make a bad shot, don’t expect it to go in.

So why do you scream at me every time you lose the ball,
Or you don’t make a shot? All of that’s your fault.

So remember, it’s not the basketball’s fault,
If anything, it’s your fault.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Halloween Painting Prompt

     One of my favorite prompts to use just before Halloween time is this photograph of a watercolor painting by the late, great Steve Hanks. (Click on his name to see a magnificent collection of the most realistic, emotional watercolor paintings you've ever seen!)

     I showed this picture of the little crow boy to Alyssa K., age 11, and asked her to write a multisensory scene, using description, action, and dialogue (my "D.A.D. technique for vivid writing") to show the boy and how he feels in this memorable moment from childhood. Here is the lively piece she created during today's writing class:

Little Crow Boy
by Alyssa, age 11

            Whoosh! The wind howled as the yellow and red leaves blew into Tommy’s face. The sun was shining, and it didn’t help that he was wearing a black crow costume.

Caw! Caw! His fellow crows called at him. He giggled. Dumb crows, I’m a human, he thought. He stood up and chased them off. He tripped, spread his wings, and fell into a big pile of raked leaves. He laughed and made leaf angels. “Mom! When is Halloween? I’ve bween waiting in forever!” he yelled toward the house.

            “Tommy, first of all, you used your grammar wrong, and second, it’s three p.m! There’s three more hours! Tommy, also please get off of Mrs. Johnson’s lawn. She just raked those leaves!” His mom went back into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Tommy rolled his eyes, skipped away, and resumed his spot on the stairs.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Specificity Is a Key to Memorable Writing: Teaching About the "Spectrum of Specificity"

Writing with Specific Details:
Levels of SHOWING on a Spectrum of Specificity

[This is a lesson I use with my students. You can find similar lessons on my TeachersPayTeachers online store page.]

        VAGUE/ “TELLING” àààààààààààSPECIFIC/ “SHOWING”

1) She seemed nervous.

                                     2) She hid her nervousness, but the cup shook in her hand.

                                                         3) "Her face revealed nothing, but the tea                                                                             lapped the inside of the cup when she                                                                                         passed it to him."
                                                                                           (Lee Kochenderfer)

Notice the increasing specificity in the details above, resulting in a deeper, vivid word picture, one that makes the reader think, rather than just passively absorb information. Details are tools to engage readers in a verbal experience.
EXERCISE 1: Create your own spectrum of specificity, starting with the vague words and adding two levels of depth to produce a vivid word picture.


1) His heart ached over losing her.       2)                                                                         3)

1) She acted nonchalant.                    2)                                                                          3)

1) He embarrassed her.                    2)                                                                           3)


          After completing the above creative writing lesson with me in his private class, young author Sam wrote an essay about what he learned--an additional exercise designed to practice both essay-writing skills and introduce metacognitive analysis to enrich the depth of his learning. I present to you, below, the excellent essay he wrote, which is my way of SHOWING, NOT TELLING what my student took away from this two-part lesson.

An Essay on "The Spectrum of Specificity" Exercise
by Sam X., age 13

I stared at the vague descriptions on the paper. Each description changed from a simple statement to a vivid picture placed in the reader’s mind. By the last level, the description required inference to fully understand it. This lesson shows how specificity works and why it is important by comparing vague and specific descriptions.

Without specificity, readers soak in information but do not have to actively think, defeating the purpose of reading. An example of a vague description is “His heart ached over losing her.” However, by turning it into a more specific description, “Laying flowers on the tombstone, he couldn’t help remembering Sarah’s deep brown eyes,” the reader must infer that the girl he loves has died, and that his heart aches for her. Instead of telling the reader straight, letting readers think enhances their experience. “She acted nonchalant” is another description which needs improvement. Instead, “She tried to hide her wistfulness as Joe held hands with Karen and kissed her.” From the latter description, it seems that she also likes Joe, but tries to cover it up. The former description, however, is a boring statement that readers will not enjoy. To write an interesting and engaging piece of writing, writers must use specificity and show, not tell.

This lesson provided an example of the difference between vague and specific phrases, and allowed me to create my own “spectrums” of specificity. Knowing how to do this greatly enriches my writing and engrosses the reader.


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