Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Lessons From the Writer's Notebook: Blowing Up Your Writing With Vivid Details

Don't say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, 'Please will you do the job for me?'"
                                                                                                C.S. Lewis

Raise your hand if you've ever thought about apologizing to the students you taught in the first couple years of your career?  I remember some of it like it was yesterday.  Over other parts, I've drawn a thin, hazy veil of cobwebs. As a writing teacher, I remember being so overwhelmed when I sat with a student and her writing.  I did what many beginning teachers do; I focused on grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It's easily identifiable and fixable. Those early writing conferences often ended with this sage advice: You need to add more detail.

It took about a five years of teaching before I realized the futility of that advice.  What led me to this revelation? Well. I took a writing class. Not just any writing class. I enrolled in the Southern Arizona Writing Project, under the umbrella of the National Writing Project.  It changed my teaching, my writing, and my life, and it is why I am a huge proponent of teachers developing their own writing skills. How can we teach writing if we've never attempted what we ask our students to do?

So there I was in a writers' circle, sharing my writing with my peers and university professors. And someone said to me "You need to add more detail."  

Another colleague, perpetually cute in her Athleta sports dresses and pigtails, said, "You're telling us, not showing us."

My heart quivered from their criticism. Just a little. I went back to my writer's notebook and got to work. However, that writers' circle was a pivotal experience for me as a teacher, too. How often had I said those exact same words to my students, and then walked away? My colleagues did not launch into lengthy explanations of how I might show instead of tell. No one taught me what to do next.  I was left with the uneasy knowledge that my writing was "less than." 

But I was an adult. I figured it out.  My students? Not so much.

Flash forward 19 years.  I'm conferring with one of my fifth grade students who is drafting a literary essay. We've been exploring a variety of ways to support our stance and theme in our essays. Today, "John" is writing a personal mini-story to persuasively support his idea that perseverance pays off.

At the beginning of the writing conference, I ask him to tell me about the thinking he's doing as a writer.  We go through the niceties of a brief oral summary. He points out and shares parts he is really proud of, and then he shares the mini-story he's drafting.  It's flat, like a train track.  I tell him that I can see why he chose this particular mini-story.  I ask him to close his eyes while I read it back to him.

"What do you see in your mind as you listen?" I ask.

His answer is brief.  We talk about the lack of the "movie in his mind" when he listened to the rereading. And then I say the dreaded words,"You need to add more detail." His eyes glaze over. That is the honest-to-God truth.  But then, I ask, "Do you know how to do that?"

He shakes his head, "No." I go in for the kill!

(I need to add a side note here.  As writing teachers, we can find 50 million things that need to be fixed in any writing conference. Heck, I can find that many when I look at my own writing! CHOOSE ONE teaching point. Repeat this mantra 10 times: CHOOSE ONE. Breathe. You can do this).

John has many adjectives. This is common. Students often equate "details" with adjectives. We need verbs. So I ask him to choose a sentence he wants to blow up.  I explain that I want him to imagine verbs like little sticks of dynamite. When we use powerful verbs, our writing blows up with imagery.

I could've chosen to talk about similes or metaphors, personification or hyperbole. I chose verbs because John used too many "be" verbs.  I could've talked about passive tense. I didn't do that because I wanted something immediately accessible for him. The passive tense would become a whole group lesson. Using the sentence John chose, I modeled how to change the verb. He chose another sentence, and he tried it with my guidance.  I left him with the small assignment of choosing two other sentences to "blow up," and I made an appointment with him for later in the week to check on his progress.

Over my last few years of teaching, I've noticed a trend in the data that constantly swirls around me. Students have difficulty identifying and understanding descriptive language while reading. As writers, they are often mystified about how to use descriptive language.  Standardized assessments consistently show that our students' knowledge of vocabulary holds their progress back in reading.  

In my last "When Teachers Write..." post (found here), I wrote about massaging the language arts corpus callosum. There must be carry over between readers and writers workshops. Departmentalization and a lack of connectivity between the two workshops compounds students' struggles with descriptive language and details in reading and writing. 

Over the last two years, I've developed a number of reading and writing lessons for large or small group instruction that help students tackle "the details," so they can read like writers and write like readers. Two of my favorite can be seen by clicking the graphic below. This pack offers a reading mini-lesson and a writing mini-lesson, as well as three different text type passages to use with the lessons. It also includes a student reflection activity. 

One more exciting happening is the ELA Live group that starts tonight! I've joined middle school and secondary teachers to chat about language arts instruction. It's the perfect way to fit in some professional development. Pour yourself a glass of wine and put your feet up while tuning in to live videos on Facebook! The schedule is listed below. We hope you'll join us at 9 p.m., EST.

Aug. 1st at 9 pm EST
"Project Based Learning for Secondary English Classrooms" with Mud & Ink Teaching

Aug. 2nd at 9 pm EST
"Strategies for Writing Commentary for Literary Analysis" with Bespoke ELA

Aug. 3rd at 9 pm EST
"Ideas and Strategies to Incorporate Choice Reading" with Doc Cop

Aug. 4th at 9 pm EST
"Pinpoint the Source of Most Reading Problems in Five Minutes" with Reading Simplified

Aug. 5th at 9 pm EST
"How to Teach Students to Elaborate on their Thinking" with English, Oh My! 

Aug. 6th at 9 pm EST
"How to Run a Book Club" with The Reading and Writing Haven

Aug. 7th at 9 pm EST
"Encourage Independent Reading in Reluctant Learners" with Samson's Shoppe

Aug. 8th at 9 pm EST
"Using Showcase Projects to Increase Engagement" with Spark Creativity

Aug. 9th at 4 pm EST
"How to Publish Student Writing Online and Create E-Portfolios" with Amanda Write Now

Aug. 10th at 9 pm EST
"5 Hidden Gems (books!) that Both Teachers and Students will Love with 2 Lifelong Teachers

Aug. 11th at 9 pm EST
"Starting on the Right Track with Struggling Secondary (Dependent) Learners" with Secondary Urban Legends

Aug. 12th at 9 pm EST
"Back to School Digital Escape Room" with Lit with Lyns

Aug. 13th at 9 pm EST
"Conferring with Student Writers" with Wild Child Designs

Aug. 14th at 9 pm EST
"Giving Meaningful Feedback to Writers" with Read it. Write it. Learn It. 

Aug. 15th at 9 pm EST
"Grammar Manipulations: Holding Language" with Language Arts Classroom

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