Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Essay Paragraph Checklist as Easy as "E-I-E-I-O!"

I gave this guide to my workshop students, and I'm sharing it now, here, for those who teach and those who learn about writing!


Think of E I E I O (like the “Old MacDonald” song!) Use this to guide your editorial notes on your critique partner’s page.

Establish (topic/theme)
Illustrate (with quotation or example that fits established topic)
Explain (explain what the illustration shows)
Interpret (interpret why the illustration shows what it shows or is important)
Overall (overall, this paragraph has revealed that…)

1. Is the topic clearly ESTABLISHED, in specific words, as the opening line of the paragraph? 
If you answered YES, then write “clear and concise” beside that line.
If you answered NO, then write “clarify and cut,” and add your suggestions, if any, in the margin.

2.  Is the sentence that establishes the topic/theme followed by an apt verbal ILLUSTRATION, a.k.a. “concrete detail,” “example,” or quotation? 
If the illustration IS fitting, write “well-illustrated” beside that line.
If the illustration does NOT aptly support the opening line, annotate in the margin “find stronger example.” 
If the illustration could have been shorter, mark how you would cut it down to be most concise.

Also, is that illustration set up in context for a reader who might know nothing about the quoted or referenced literature?  Underline the transitional words that set up the illustration and put a smiley face beside them.
If the  “set up” needs improvement, or is absent, please note that in the margin and suggest ideas for a smooth set up.

3. Is the illustration followed by a commentary line to EXPLAIN what this particular illustration shows?
If YES, write “fine explanation” and a checkmark beside that line.
If the commentary line does not explain, or is absent, write “clear explanation needed here.”

4. Does the next commentary line INTERPRET the purpose of the words in the illustration on a deeper level, offering YOUR opinion (without saying, “I think” or “I feel that”) of why this example is important for the reading of the work?
If the line is a thought-provoking interpretation, draw a glowing light bulb beside it.
If the student writer has merely restated the previous explanation, without adding any depth, write “go deeper” beside that line. If the interpretation goes off-topic, write that in the margin.

5. Does the concluding line provide an OVERALL statement of what this paragraph has revealed, in a broader sense than the opening line?
If so, draw a smiley face beside it.
If it merely restates the established topic in slightly different words than the ones in the first sentence, then write “go broader” in the margin.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Flower, the Ring, and the Wheel: New Visions of a Heartwarming Photo, By Three Young Poets

I found this photo on someone's Facebook page, uncredited, so if anyone knows its origin, please let me know so that I can post it here. That said, isn't this a moving photo representing a community of children? It's a moving writing prompt, as well, as you're about to see from the three metaphorical poems inspired by this picture, by two 12-year-old girls and one 11-year-old boy….

Wheel of Community
by P.M., age 12

The spokes all work together,
to keep the wheel moving
they use their heads,
to hold up their community.

Their feet nailed to the center
without any gaps,
the spokes are all important.
With gaps and spaces,
the community won't
turn, move, or progress properly
on the grassy road of life.

*          *          *          *

A Ring Forever
by A.C., age 12

Heads of honeycomb stud the ring
Curving around elegant forms in warm hues of brown
That come together like rays of the sun.
In the middle of a leafy, green forest
Lies the ring,
A ring crafted not of cold diamond and gaudy gold,
But of life, of beating hearts, and hands and feet 
   wreathed together;
Of peace, unity, happiness, and freedom
On the longest day, and longest night,
When shadows stretch, and the sun and moon
   are at their fullest.
It is then, that the forgotten people
Of a faraway place gather in an unknown 
   corner of a nameless jungle,
As these people, so long ago discarded by others
Come together, time stops.
And there is only music,
The soft whistling of the wind and hum of the crickets,
   of voices, young and deep, and 
   old and cracked, strung together by the rhythm 
   of the ground.
It is not perfect, but it is together.
It is a ring forever,
A promise to the earth.

     *     *     *     *     *     *

by D.S., age 11

An open flower
With welcoming arms
For bees to come
and bring it pollen
And to take its nectar
To share with 
the world.
Most of us
See only
Bees coming in
And giving
And flowers
Simply receiving
It gives 
Things we 
Would never imagine
So when we go to 
Pollinate the flowers
With seeds of knowledge
We return with sweet nectar knowledge and memories
Of their cultures
Of their Ubuntu*
Of the things that they
Offer to us.
Accept their gifts 
With open arms
For though it seems that
We may not,
We need each other,
We do.
For we need
To share
Our ingenuity
Our culture
Our own special talents.
In Africa,
A flower waits with open arms
for you.
Go to it.

*"Ubuntu" is a Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to "human kindness." It is an idea from the Southern African region which means literally "human-ness." We discussed this briefly in class as we looked at the picture.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What, When, Where? That, Then, There?

Did you know if you replace the "w's" in what, when, and where with Ts, you get the answer to all three questions?

This fascinating tidbit came from my daughter's friend Sean, a lover of intelligent wordplay, like me.

And so I decided to turn this fun fact into a short piece of writing--something you, too, could do! Here's mine, below. Feel free to leave yours in the comments section!

     "What?" she asked, following his eyes to their target, a bat-like creature hanging from the curtains.
     "That," he answered, shuddering. "I didn't know it had reappeared."
     "When?" she asked. "During the night?"
     "Then. Yes." He nodded. "We have to shoo it out of here."
     "Where?" she asked.
     "There!" he answered, pointing to the chimney and handing her a broom.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Grammar Lessons for Today's Screen-Watching Students!

          I don't teach formal grammar lessons regularly; I prefer to pull my grammar lessons out of recurrent errors in my students' writings, and to do so on an "as-needed" basis. But when I do teach grammar, I love the support of my favorite grammarians, E. B. White and William Strunk, who wrote the classic book The Elements of Style (click on the title for a free PDF download), full of helpful lists (and even humor), and replete with specific examples to bolster the lists. I sometimes create quizzes based on Strunk & White's lists of grammar issues, or simply refer to the book to help my students understand a certain grammar rule.

          But recently, I discovered that a more modern grammarian, Jane Straus, posted on her website one-minute videos about grammar that will certainly appeal to today's multimedia learning style more than a book of lists would. Straus's videos are posted on (click here to see the list,  watch some videos, and learn some new rules of grammar and punctuation).

I think that you will find the grammar segments easy to digest and apply. And it doesn't take but a minute to review and polish some element of your word usage in each sitting. I plan to use these videos as often as I need to with my writing students. Maybe I'll even develop some of my own videos--ON STYLE! Hmm.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Poetry Evokes Poetry!

          My 12-year-old student, A.L., who wrote this memorable poem was inspired by another poem, which I read to her, "Grass," by Carl Sandburg (click on the poem's title to read it). A.L. was deeply moved by the idea of the grass growing innocently and beautifully over the very grounds upon which battles occurred, grounds that were soaked in blood before they were covered by green. I am so impressed by the depth and drama of  her "The Man in the Moon" that I wanted to share it with you as further proof that poetry prompts some of the most introspective writing.

The Man in the Moon
by A.L.

The Man in the Moon looks at the green-blue planet below him,
And can’t help but think,
That through all of its beauty,
And all of its brilliance,
There are things that clash in the World of Man.
The Man in the Moon can’t help but see,
With unblinking eyes,
The battles and bloodshed that have passed by,
The shots that echoed around the world,
The Declaration of Independence,
The Battle of Gettysburg, of Clouds, of Bunker Hill,
And the Man in the Moon wonders,
“How can brothers turn on each other without a second thought?”
But he cannot close his eyes,
As he watches families brutally destroyed,
Because of different loyalties and of switching sides,
He sees the bodies of fallen soldiers, lying broken and at peace,
Painting the once green grass an ugly shade of red.
The Man in the Moon cannot talk, nor say prayers for the dead,

Instead, he weeps rays of moonlight.


PLEASE leave a comment below for this talented poet! 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Student Psychologists Born from Writing Fiction!

          A lesson in character development based on a character's desires or fears turned into a prompt to create an invented phobia, which students had to name, based on Latin or Greek roots (as most phobias are named). The phobia had to launch a story that revealed the phobia via a scene in which a character displays the fear, and then faces ridicule or questioning from others, and either overcomes or succumbs to that fear. Here is an exemplary story by a 12-year-old author, S.V., that uses a very strong voice, lively descriptions, and a great sense of humor. Enjoy this peek into "somniphobia"!

A story about “Somniphobia” a.k.a. “dormaphobia”--the fear of sleep
by S.V., age 12

I stood inside of Bailey’s house, faking laughs and smiles, and wondering for the 50th time why I had agreed to come to this stupid sleepover. I had TRIED to tell Bailey the one thing that no one other than my family knew, the reason I didn’t want to go to her sleepover, but with Bailey screaming and ranting about how best friends HAD to come to each other’s birthday parties, I couldn’t get a word said. Bailey just wouldn’t let me tell her about my fear of… of… sleep.

Some people call sleep a refreshing time that gives your body rest. I call it death’s child in disguise. You can’t blame me! Not after having to see my grandpa, fall asleep, and never wake up. Not after watching my little brother lose the use of his whole body because he went to sleep. After those two experiences, I thought of sleep as death, beckoning me, drawing me closer and closer. Every night, as soon as I got sleepy, I’d start sweating and getting anxiety attacks. Doctors and psychologists just couldn’t understand my hatred of sleep. But that was back then. Now, I have to do a bunch of things before I go to sleep in order to avoid anxiety attacks… things that I CAN’T do at a sleep over.

You tell me. Would you be able to sit down in the middle of a sleepover and start meditating, while 7 other girls watched you, wondering what the heck you were doing? How would you feel when you had to wake up every hour with the alarm on your phone just so that you could make sure you weren’t dead or paralyzed? How would you feel if you knew that sooner or later, your “best friend” was going to stare at you in disgust and pretend she didn’t know you? But here I was, inside of Bailey’s house, watching the clock apprehensively as I awaited 11:50, ten minutes before the time when Bailey said we would sleep, and therefore the time I needed to start my meditation. Then the time came, and I KNEW I had to start now, but I just couldn’t humiliate myself. So I ran outside of the room, down the stairs, and into the living room. There, I plopped onto the ground and closed my eyes, starting to meditate. I heard the shouting upstairs stop gradually. Then, I heard confused whispers, and tiptoes down the stairs. I squeezed my eyes shut and fought the urge to jump up and pretend I had needed to go the bathroom. Now I could tell they were watching me.

All of a sudden, I felt someone shaking my shoulder. My eyes flew open to meet Bailey’s. “Amber! What are you doing? You’re embarrassing yourself AND me in front of all of my friends!” Bailey whispered, intensely. I shut my eyes and forced myself to ignore everyone. Just five more minutes. After I was done, I got up, brushed my hair away from my eyes, and walked up the stairs like nothing had happened. When everyone was back upstairs, they crowded on one side of Bailey’s room, the side fathest away from me. Bailey spoke up, throwing me dirty looks. “Okay everyone, let’s go to sleep now and forget about anything WEIRD and IDIOTIC that might have just happened. Everyone muttered with agreement, eyeing me suspiciously. We all fell asleep. Then, one hour later, my phone buzzed, blasting a One Direction song through the room and causing everyone to jolt awake. Everyone stared at me in disbelief. “AMBER! WHAT IS HAPPENING?” Bailey screamed in my face. Tears were threatening to spill down my face. I couldn’t do this. I picked up my phone, ran downstairs, and called my mom. She came to pick me up five minutes later. 

As we drove away, I looked back at Bailey’s house, knowing that that was probably the last time I’d ever see it. That night, I couldn’t go to sleep.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sources of Memorable Words for Teaching on YouTube

          Occasionally, for lesson prompts on writing and public speaking, I look up "Commencement Addresses" or "Graduation Speeches" on YouTube. These searches lead me to exemplary speakers sharing inspiring words, especially for young people. I found the compelling Stanford commencement speech by Steve Jobs in this way. I printed that transcript and had my students analyze his use of language, as well as his style of delivery, to discover what made him a sought-after speaker and why his words live on even after his death. Many lessons grew out of watching that video on YouTube.

          Today, I was browsing videos online again and came across Chris Gardner's 2009 commencement speech at University of California-Berkeley.  I have added it to my Favorites in my YouTube account, to share with my students this summer, but I feel compelled to share some of the inspiring words verbatim here.

          Mr. Gardner, known as the single father who transformed himself from homeless to famous as an esteemed business executive, whose life was the subject of a film starring Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness," wrote that he would like to see:

 "….a new vision of the American Dream that says achieving balance in your life is more important than the balance in your checking account, a new vision of the American Dream where appreciation is greater than expectation." 

He adds to that powerful vision these words, which remind me of the lesson learned by Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol:

"…for too long a lot of us have been living in exile in a place called Things, and it's time for us to come home to Friends, Families, and Folks."

I may use the first quotation to discuss parallelism, repetition, and contrast as stylistic techniques. I will probably have my students emulate his structure with their own continuation of "a new vision of the American Dream," a dream not based on acquisition. The second quotation could prompt a fiction piece about exiled people dwelling in a materialistic world until they discover the existence of a more meaningful place. And the video of Gardner's speech will prompt discussion and emulation of his pacing, eye contact, use of humor, purposeful pauses, etc., so that students can practice reading the pieces they have written with a group.

          Yet again, I have found that YouTube can serve as an enlightening resource for education when we take the time to search for quality!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Remember AMELIA BEDELIA and Her Confusion over Homophones?

     Puns make use of the double-meanings within homophones--words that sound the same, but have different meanings--to make us laugh…or GROAN, in many cases! I recall, as a child, finding this pun-based joke surprisingly amusing:
                   What's black and white and red [read] everywhere?... A newspaper!
Forget the fact that the joke is completely out-of-date, since many people don't bother with newspapers anymore. The point is that everyone enjoys, even though they might cover their enjoyment with a groan, figuring out a clever pun--especially children.
       The classic pun-centered children's books about Amelia Bedelia featured the hapless housekeeper  confusing her orders from her boss because she heard homophones instead of the boss's intended words. When told to "dust" the furniture, she throws dust around the room; when told to "dress" the chicken, she puts the dead bird into a doll-sized dress, etc. Homophones comprise both homographs, words spelled identically that have different meanings (such as "dust" and "dress"), and homonyms, words spelled differently that sound the same and have different meanings ("red" and "read," "bare" and "bear," "knight" and "night," etc.). Young children can also enjoy a homophonically humorous picture book by Fred Gwynne (a.k.a. the actor who played "Herman Munster" on the old TV sitcom, "The Munsters"), titled The King Who Rained.   Using Gwynne's book, as well as Pun and Games, by Richard Lederer,  I recently prompted some of my private students, from 8 to 12 years old, to write their own mini-stories about someone's confusion over a homophone. Of course, they also had to use my "D.A.D. Technique" (Description, Action, Dialogue) to paint a word picture. This year, as always, the kids show obvious enjoyment in playing with words and creating slapstick scenes. Plus, it forces them to brainstorm lists of homophones, and appreciate the complexity of our language in the process. 

Homograph Confusion Exercise--Student Sample, by A.C.


“Hey, you over there, go put two more coats on the wall. It looks a little bare,” I direct the worker. I turn away and shout to my boss, “We’re putting two more coats on the wall…” I check the map [by map, this young author meant architectural plans]. “Wall X on the right wing,” I tell him. He nods.
Wiping sweat from my brow, I start drilling again. I turn back around, hoping the worker is back with paint by now. But when I turn around, there are two yellow construction jackets plastered to the wall and no worker in sight. “What the—“ I stammer. All the workers around me burst out laughing.
“It was a good joke, Kim,” one of them sputters.

“It’s not funny,” I bark at them, but even my boss has started to laugh, so I can’t help but join in.

TRY WRITING YOUR OWN SCENE USING HOMOPHONIC HUMOR! And please post your comments below (or on my Google+ page).